Our Daily Poison: From Pesticides to Packaging, How Chemicals Have Contaminated the Food Chain and Are Making Us Sick
The New Press
If you are not already aware of how pervasive man-made poisons are in the environment, reading this book may make you want to run back to your cave and hide. This book goes well beyond just cataloging known toxins that we are exposed to and explains how the industries that produce them know they are dangerous and connive to keep them on the market. One way they do that is with slippery euphemisms. They don’t make pesticides, for example. They produce phytosanitary products.
The problems are not just confined to industry itself but the agencies that are supposed to regulate them. For example, the herbicide Lasso was banned in Canada in 1985 but not in Europe until 2007 and then slowly. Why so slowly? Did they think maybe the Canadians were idiots? Actually, I don’t know what they think of Canadians but that was not the reason for the delay in the ban. They went slow so as not to inconvenience Monsanto too much.
Robin goes into the history of how we got where we are today. In brief, it seems the powers that be thought it would be a shame to let the chemical warfare expertise developed during two world wars go to waste, so they declared a new war—on nature. This war on nature has produced some absurd results. In 1957 the USDA decided to wipe out fire ants. The ants don’t cause any crop damage and have never killed anyone but we just don’t like them, so we’re going to annihilate them all. The collateral damage from this war was extensive and succeeded in killing birds and other small wild life in general. Farm livestock also took a big hit, along with dogs and cats. After all the carnage the fire ant was more widespread than ever. The program earned the complete contempt of everyone who knew about it.
One expert estimated that where pesticides are widely dispersed, only about 0.3 percent of that pesticide reaches its intended target. So 99.7 percent is targeting something else. We often hear the argument that people are only exposed to very small amounts. There is even a nice mathematical formula to make it look all scientific. The formula has a name—Haber’s Law—named after the man who came up with it. Toxicity is equal to the concentration multiplied by the time it takes to cause a reaction. Like golf scores, the lower the number, the better and less toxic. Industry likes to focus on the concentration and ignore the fact that if the time is years or decades, you still end up with a high “score” of exposure.
Robin spills the beans on a number of techniques industry uses to cheat on safety testing. Metastudies that compile statistics from multiple other studies can be twisted by mixing apples and oranges. When looking at toxic exposures of farmers, if you include studies of livestock farmers with crop farmers you are mixing two very different groups with very different exposures. The results of such a fruit cocktail will be meaningless. Manufacturers also like to keep their toxicology data secret, which doesn’t exactly inspire my confidence.
A strain of rats called Sprague-Dawley was “invented” about fifty years ago by Charles River Company. These rats reproduce robustly and are insensitive to estrogen. As you might imagine, chemical companies strongly prefer to use these rats in their studies of product safety, since endocrine disruption and estrogen dominance are associated with pesticide exposure. Studies on these test animals therefore prove exactly nothing. This is not an accident or an isolated mistake. This is conflict of interest at work. The industry then floods the literature with studies like this and you hear the words, “the majority of studies show…,” which may sound good to those impressed by consensus science. Again, this proves exactly nothing.
Sometimes you only need to see a brief excerpt from a study to get a good feel for the quality of work. One study would have us believe that they “took specimens of the uterus from male rabbits.” Another study recorded animal A23LM as being alive at week eighty-eight, dead from week ninety-two through one hundred four, and alive again at week one hundred eight. Finally, mercifully, it died for the last time (we think) at week one hundred twelve.
Robin devotes many pages to the issue of cancer. Cancer is an ancient illness but occurred rarely until recently. It was non-existent in Alaskan natives, rare in parts of Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia and equatorial Africa until those areas were compromised by civilization. Before most of us were born the causes of cancer were well-understood. Identical twin studies had been ruled out for genetic causes. It was known that benzene, arsenic, asbestos, synthetic hormones and radiation were causes. Having known all this for so long and, on top of that, Nixon declaring war on cancer in the early 1970s, how is it that cancer is still so prevalent? Epidemiologist Richard Clapp summed up the situation nicely. “The logic behind the precautionary principle runs counter to the private interests of the pharmaceutical industry, for whom cancer is the crab with the golden claws. And those who sell us drugs to treat our chronic diseases are the same people who polluted us, and continue to pollute us. They’re winning on all fronts.”
The conflict of interest goes beyond industry doing its own product safety studies. The regulators for the most part come from industry. The scientists who evaluate food safety or contamination issues for WHO or FAO are usually retired or have spare time and are not the best around. The best have better things to do. When industry is asked for data, they provide it—mountains of it. It would take years to go through all of it. The whole system was created by industry for industry. On top of all that there is a deceptive snowball effect. Corporations like to tout their products as approved by every food safety agency in the world, or at least most of them. However, that doesn’t really mean they all independently studied the product. If the FDA approved it, often Health Canada, European and other agencies rubber stamp that approval. If the FDA dropped the ball (gee, that never happens) then it gets dropped all over the world. Many food safety officials are clearly more concerned about industry well-being than your safety. A senior EFSA (European Food Safety Association) official said that banning aspartame would be impossible not just because of the impact on the industry but the food safety system itself would lose all integrity if it admitted to such a huge mistake.
For all these and many other reasons it should be clear that the system needs a major overhaul and that will not happen if we are counting on the current batch of experts to do the job. This book does do a good job of collating information from at least one hundred books, archives of lawyers, NGO experts and personal interviews across ten countries. The thumb is UP.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2015