Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Anne O’Connor talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Anne O’Connor.
ANNE O’CONNOR: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Anne O’Connor, and I’m here today with Jay Feldman, founding executive director at Beyond Pesticides, where he has tracked specific chemical facts, regulatory actions, and pesticide law since 1981. Welcome, Jay.
JAY FELDMAN: Hi, how are you?
AOC: I’m doing great, despite the fact that some of the things that we care about most are under attack right now. And we’re going to get to some of those questions and thoughts later on in this show. But right now I’m wondering if you can talk to us a little bit—Beyond Pesticides’ primary goal is to effect change through local action and to identify the risks of conventional pest management, and to promote nonchemical management alternatives. But what else? You’ve got a long history and a lot of fingers in a lot of pies. Tell us about what you do.
JF: Yeah, and you know, the local part that you mention is really key to what we’re about, and how we see change happening in the country, and worldwide. Organic is a great example of that, because it really starts from the grassroots. People make decisions around land stewardship; consumers decide they want access to clean food; they want to see clean water and clean air; and they develop direct relationships with farmers. That grows into farmers markets, buying clubs. Eventually we find certification programs popping up. And then that ends up in the grocery store with laws that establish a uniform labeling and certification process that is intended to ensure compliance with a standard that people can expect and can respect at the same time.
AOC: So you just walked us through the many, many year process of the organic label.
JF: Now, you know, this is a process that started from the bottom up. I mean, there are a lot of analogies here to health and the environment and building public involvement and making big changes in society that affect our health and the health of the ecosystems in which we live. It is a bottom-up approach, from our experience, which doesn’t mean that we don’t need state government and federal governments to track science, make sure that we have standards that are protected. Wherever you live in the United States, there’s a level of protection. And so we do want to see a federal government operating effectively to provide some basic minimum standards of protection. But you know what? The local governments and the local communities really lead the way on that, and then states, and the federal government actually follows.
And you know, from our perspective, again, I think when we work on an issue, often it’s born out of the family sense of protecting our children, protecting our pets, protecting the nuclear unit that we tend to live in, from an assault of some sort. And from that perspective you’ve got, what we see are a lot of people engaged—engaged in this process on a daily basis. So the question is, well, what do I feed my family? You know, do I just go out and buy anything, or am I going to scrutinize what my family eats?
Now, when we’re, obviously, living in any community, we’re breathing the air, we’re drinking the water, we’re sending our kids to school, we’re going down to the local park—we’re interacting every day with this question of how we’re managing land, how we’re managing buildings. When you think about it, it’s pretty amazing: as an environmental or public health issue, pesticides are in our lives every day. And most of what we experience when we walk out our front door and go about our day, whether we’re going to work or school or whatever, just relaxing, enjoy[ing], recreating in our town, we’re intersecting with pesticides—pesticides that are used to treat the lawns, the parks, the medians, the forested areas. We’re intersecting with those chemicals.
AOC: So yeah, I mean sometimes we’re reminded of this in some really heartbreaking ways, right? The four children who were killed in Texas earlier this month from a chemical, a pesticide chemical, right?
JF: Yeah, and that’s a classic example of whether we have a regulatory system. Because the reality is, we acknowledge as a society that we are allowing these toxic chemicals in our midst, that they are being used in our community. And then we look at those chemicals—this is where the science comes in—we make a determination whether those toxic, admittedly toxic chemicals, both from an acute and a chronic standpoint, meaning they can cause an immediate reaction, headaches, rashes, dizziness, disorientation, which can be an immediate effect, and also the chronic long-term effects: cancer, birth defects, reproductive problems, diabetes, Parkinson’s, autism. So you know, there are these questions of putting these chemicals on the market through some system, which we have. We have a regulatory system under a federal law called the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act—“FIFRA,” we call it—and that is our law, our national pesticide law that requires that before a pesticides ends up in use, you know, for mosquito control, for aquatic weed control in our lakes and our waterways, before that happens that it’s gone through some process of evaluation to determine what EPA, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, determines to be an acceptable use pattern resulting in, and I put this in quotes, “an acceptable risk.”
And this important. We’ll come back to this, because that concept of what is “acceptable” is driven by law. We literally empower federal and state governments to make determinations on what are acceptable hazards, and they come up with a protocol for that review, and so forth.
But the bottom line is when we’re talking about a death, or deaths of children, like you described, from phosgene gas, which is basically used in this case as a rodenticide, has very restrictive uses. There’s a family that went down to the U.S. Virgin Islands, you may have heard about, and they were vacationing, and a unit next to their condominium was treated with a fumigant, and it escaped into their unit and the family is incapacitated. I mean, the children have long-term nerve damage and can’t function any longer.
And so we put these chemicals out there. And this is true whether we’re talking agriculture, we’re talking basic pest control, the people we may call up to come to our homes, or the guys that are spraying the mosquito insecticides—these decisions are made based on an assumption that we can “mitigate risks.” That’s the phrase they use, okay? We’re going to allow this toxic chemical on the market but we’re going to mitigate these risks. And we’re going to do that with an enforcement system. We’re going to put a label on the product with instructions on how to use it; we’re going to require some training in some cases; and then we’re going to empower some agency to enforce compliance with that label on that product, those label instructions. And, you know, from all those steps I just described, you can imagine that there can be many weak links in the chain.
AOC: Sure, and lots of people lobbying against stronger enforcements, and—
JF: Yeah, and limited training programs. I mean, we have a provision in law that allows a high school student to go out and apply pesticides under the supervision of—that’s what the law says—under the supervision of a commercial certified applicant. But in reality, “under the supervision” means that this kid is out there spraying pesticides, could be in an agricultural context or in our community, lawn care, et cetera, and has no direct oversight—may be in phone contact, but there is no direct oversight required. So there are weak links in this chain of mitigating risk.
AOC: Sure, you see it all the time, right? You see people applying pesticides all the time without proper gear, without gloves, without… I mean, at least if you live in rural America.
JF: Yeah. And in this case, with the children who died, this is a straight-up violation of the label. And you say, well, that’s the fault of the applicator. Well, the question is, if there’s that margin of error, if the margin of error is that small that that weak link can be broken, then the question is, can we trust that these mitigation measures really work?
AOC: Right, because we’ve got now four kids dead and five people in the hospital, and who knows what kind of—like you said, who knows what kind of ramifications for them for the rest of their lives? So you have many, many people affected and an entire community affected.
JF: Exactly. Yeah, and by the way, there are costs associated with all of this, you know. We often have this argument with the proponents of heavy pesticide use that, you know, this is more economical and it basically wouldn’t be possible to manage pests, maintain our quality of life, control insects, control weeds, without these toxic chemicals. And this is where we get into the underlying standard of the law. I know this sounds wonky, but you know, we write laws for a reason. There are lobbyists in Washington, D.C., and state capitals for a reason. And the reason is, I think, really epitomized in this federal pesticide law, because we have written a law that provides protection against “unreasonable adverse effects to man and the environment.” Now, what could be more of a weasel word than “unreasonable adverse effects”? I mean, I could interpret that any way I wanted to, essentially.
AOC: That’s true.
JF: And so what we… And basically the way it’s interpreted is to try and come up with some standard of reasonable hazard. How many cancer deaths are acceptable? How many cases of Parkinson’s or what-have-you are acceptable? What is reasonable in terms of a death rate?—these children who were exposed to a rodenticide.
So these questions of allowable exposures resulting in known hazards, and then defining those hazards as “acceptable”—those are huge societal questions, especially given the fact that all these diseases touch our families. We all know family members, friends, that have died prematurely from cancer; children that are suffering from learning disabilities; reproductive problems. These are all problems that we see. These are not foreign, abstract concepts. And yet we are purposefully introducing chemicals known to have these adverse effects, to cause these problems, based on an “unreasonable adverse effects” standard, meaning that there is a reasonable rate of disease. That’s how it’s interpreted.
Now, we don’t interpret it that way, and we have been working for many decades with EPA to make the argument that these are not reasonable risks. I don’t care if we’re talking one cancer or two cancers or 50,000. These are not reasonable risks if there are alternative practices that achieve the same pest management goal without those risks.
AOC: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio. I’m Anne O’Connor, and I’m here today with Jay Feldman, who is the founding executive director at Beyond Pesticides.
Okay, so therein is the rub, right? Okay, so we can talk all day about whether people really…people, just regular folks who live in communities, do they really understand those risks? So that’s one question. But the other piece of it is, what’s the alternative? What’s the answer? What else can we do?
JF: Yeah. Well, so that’s what we’re about, and that’s what… When we go into a community and we work with people on determining how to manage a schoolyard or a public park or a waterway or mosquitoes, we’re asking that question. Are the risks of the current program reasonable in light of the availability of alternative practices that do not represent a hazard?
And you know, years ago, I can tell you, when we first started doing this, I was a young lad, and we realized there were organic farmers out there, because I had spent about four years traveling the country, meeting with farmers, farm workers, talking to them about management practices in the light of the poisoning that was going on. Back then—this is in the late 1970s—we wanted to develop a worker protection standard for farm workers. And the interesting thing is, when we talked about farm workers, now these are really disenfranchised people. You know, they don’t always speak the language; they are at the bottom rung in the economic ladder so they’re not predisposed to asserting their rights in the workplace, certainly. And it turns out that workers under our federal law, workers on the farm, farm workers, do not have protection under our occupational safety and health laws, but their protection comes from EPA, this FIFRA law, which is quite absurd but that’s the way it is. And when I got involved with this in the late ’70s, the worker protection standard was farm workers may not reenter the fields until the sprays have dried and the dusts have settled. So there’s nothing related to residues in the field, water contamination, drift, worker protection, hand washing, and toilet facilities—nothing related to that. Nothing related to age requirements—children could be seen on the edges of fields, in cars, as their parents worked and toiled in the field.
So what we worked on was going out and collecting this information that yeah, you know what? These workers do need protection. They are being exposed. They’re being exposed to admittedly toxic materials. And we did get a worker protection standard that is governed under EPA, and that has actually, in the last year it was updated somewhat. So that shows that where there’s public involvement you can create change at a large level, which is a message that people need to hear today, especially during these times—not forget.
AOC: Right, and I think it’s very hopeful, too, that you’re laying this out as local communities rising, versus…right?
JF: Yeah. So I only bring this up because when you go out in communities, you see the range of exposure, starting with the first in line of exposure, which would be a farm worker or would be a lawn-care operator who’s handling these materials, or someone working for mosquito abatement and driving those trucks and spraying those pesticides. They’re the first in line of exposure, not to mention, of course, farmers. We make this distinction between farm workers and farmers, but small family farmers are in there with the same exact exposure as farm workers. Now, you can argue they’re making more of a voluntary decision, but the reality is, if we’re just talking about exposures, these exposures exist across the board.
So when we go to a community… And it’s by invitation, really. I mean, we have an organization—we’re based in D.C., obviously—and I can tell you, the phone does not stop ringing, and our email is just clogged with communities that are approaching us and saying, “You know, we’ve heard that we don’t really need to expose our children to pesticides at schools. What can we do?” Or “You know, we saw your hospital project and the light dawned on us that, wow, why would our hospital be using a carcinogen when we’re treating cancer patients?” Or an asthmagen, a respiratory toxicant, when we’re treating people with asthma and respiratory diseases; or immune system and neurological diseases, which are these autoimmune diseases which are rampant now in our country. Why are we using these materials that are associated with these disease endpoints if we don’t need them, if there are alternative practices that can be used?
Now here’s the interesting part of all of this, because one of our challenges, we believe, is to not just sort of sit down and talk to someone and say, “Hey, school principal, school superintendent, why don’t you stop using these things? Here’s all the data.” And we’ve got a good guy there and he goes, “Yeah, that makes sense to me.” We want to institutionalize this, right? We want to make sure that there’s a policy there in the community that drives the practices, so that when there’s turnover, when new people come in, as we see happens every day, that the policies continue and the practices continue.
So we’re approaching, typically, if we want to see change and we want to see change last, we have to institutionalize these policies. And so we find ourselves in front of school boards or in front of city councils or county councils. And the first thing we have to do is explain where we’re at, okay? What do we know about these chemicals? What is the state of our policy?
AOC: Well, yeah, I’d like to ask you about that, because I know of several fronts of communities coming together. The hospital example that you cite, I know of a situation where people have been working for years to get the hospital to stop spraying Roundup. And for example, also on the baseball fields in the parks, they spray Roundup. And we’ve gone and said, “Hey, you know, this isn’t necessary—let’s stop this.” And how do you combat people’s understanding of their own experiences? So for example, one of the things that I’m sure you’ve heard and I’ve heard, is “Well, it’s just Roundup. Roundup is fine. It’s not dangerous, and I’ve been using it for twenty years,” or whatever they say, you know.
JF: Well, this is a problem, you know. This is a challenge, I would say. When you delve into a particular toxic chemical, when all is said and done and you’ve put together your fact sheets and you’ve researched the science, you will inevitably find that there is independent science, what we call independent peer-reviewed science, so it’s been put into some scientific journal, it’s been reviewed by the scientific minds in that field, and they have looked at it prior to publication. And then there’s industry science. So these are funded and underwritten by the chemical industry that obviously has an economic vested interest in promoting the use of those chemicals.
And for a local decision maker, it gets pretty confusing, because inevitably that decision maker will see conflicting science. And there’s a book called Merchants of Doubt, and it basically paints a story of how industry tries to create doubt in the mind of a legislator or a policy maker or a decision maker. So the person hears this controversy and goes, “Well, I guess the science is unsettled, and so I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing.”
AOC: Right, because it’s easy.
JF: But it’s really interesting, what happens at the local level—and this is where the excitement is, because let’s go back to that nuclear family and that decision maker, the home owner, the homemaker who’s making a decision on what food to buy, how to manage the pests, the cockroach or an ant or the weeds in the lawn. These are daily decisions that are being made, and as people see controversy on science, typically people will make a precautionary decision. So everything we said about mitigation of risk, suiting up to wear a respirator or some protective equipment, a parent, I think, in this day and age, would prefer to take a precautionary approach. You know, that’s why we put a helmet on our child before we send them out on their first bike ride. That’s why we use a seatbelt. That’s why we exercise. These are preventive strategies that fall under this umbrella of precaution. We’re basically taking a precautionary approach.
That is diametrically opposed to what our policies say! Our policies basically say, “Well, we’re going to take this admittedly toxic chemical, we’re going to regulate it to mitigate those risks to the best of our ability, and we’re going to accept a high degree of uncertainty.” We are literally going to accept uncertainty. But you know what? If we accept uncertainty—and I can show you most of the pesticides on the market today do not have what EPA would consider complete information on impacts to children, and so they apply what they call an “additional margin of safety.” So they take a number that’s based on the exposures, what the science is, and then they say, well, what’s missing? “Well, I guess we really should know more about this chemical in terms of its effects on children. So let’s just take that number we settled on and multiply it by ten, and lower the allowable exposure by a tenfold margin.”
The way I describe that is “ten times zero is zero.” So in other words, if you don’t really know what you think you should know about impacts on vulnerable populations—it could be elderly, really; it can be someone with a preexisting condition, cancer; it could be someone in remission; it can be a child who has developing organ systems, takes in more air and food and liquid relative to body weight than an adult, so their exposure is proportionately higher, which isn’t fully evaluated by our regulatory agencies. So—
AOC: A pregnant mother.
JF: Pregnant mother, great example; fetal exposure, great example. So you take all those vulnerabilities, recognize we don’t know what we should, and you multiply it times ten, and is that supposed to make us feel better? Well, obviously, from a policy perspective, the policy makers feel, well, that does the trick. And in reality it doesn’t. And we really came, this whole issue of uncertainty and missing information and lack of a complete toxicological picture really came into focus in the late ’90s when we were seeing more in the scientific literature about endocrine disruption.
So we’ve all grown up with the concept that the dose makes the poison. So “Oh yeah, we’re using Roundup, but we’re using such a minuscule amount that it really doesn’t have any major effect, or any effect at all.” And that was the argument.
Then along come the endocrine disruptors. And these chemicals are showing effects or causing effects at low-dose, minuscule amounts. And you’re not seeing those same effects at the high-dose exposures. And so what the reality is, that these are chemicals that have an impact during critical windows of vulnerability. So they’re hormonal, they attach to hormone receptors, and they wreak havoc with the endocrine system, which can induce all kinds of organ problems. And these are the kinds of deficiencies we have to this day in our regulatory system in terms of knowing the full range of impacts.
Here’s another uncertainty for you: mixtures. I mean, it stands to reason, if we know there are 20,000 different pesticide products on the market and we are eating food and we’re breathing air and we’re drinking water, and we’re going to school and work, and in all those environments we’re exposed to pesticides, it stands to reason that we’re exposed to mixtures. And yet there is no testing of mixtures.
AOC: Join us next week for Part 2 of this two-part interview with Jay Feldman from Beyond Pesticides.
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