The Pesticide Industry vs. Consumers: Not a Fair Fight
Dow has not only emerged as a powerhouse of traditional lobbying; it has also kept up the pressure on regulators in other ways. The company maintains a website, Chlorpyrifos Protects (chlorpyrifos.com), that gives the public an accessible platform for sending letters to the EPA opposing regulation.
Meanwhile, informational fact sheets distributed by Dow attempt to sow doubt about the potential health risks. “Since any substance can cause harm given sufficient exposure, nothing can be called ‘safe’ in absolute terms,” reads one chlorpyrifos white paper sponsored by the company. “A couple tablets of aspirin, for example, can relieve a headache. But an overdose of aspirin can be fatal.”
These efforts, however extensive, are only the more aboveground forms of advocacy. If the battle over atrazine, another controversial pesticide, is any indication, more subterranean lobbying is probably afoot.
As recent court documents reveal, Syngenta, the producer of atrazine, doled out grants to a wide array of public relations firms, political pundits and think tanks to discredit Berkeley professor Tyrone Hayes, whose research found that atrazine causes reproductive deformities in frogs. (A recent article in The New Yorker by Rachel Aviv chronicled the company’s years-long campaign against Hayes.) Some tactics used by Syngenta were reminiscent of the ’90s-era tobacco wars, or the more recent attempts by the fossil-fuel industry to block action on climate change. Right-leaning think tanks—including the Cato Institute, the Heartland Institute, the American Enterprise Institute and the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise—were listed in Syngenta’s internal “third party stakeholder” database. Officials from some of the organizations on that list received contributions from Syngenta to place opinion pieces in local media defending atrazine. To win over journalists and scientists, Syngenta offered expense-paid trips to Switzerland, where the company is based.
But there were also some innovations in building influence. A Syngenta public relations document instructs company officials to purchase “Tyrone Hayes” as a search term on the Internet, “so that anytime someone searches for Tyrone’s material, the first thing they see is our material, not his,” according to filings with the Madison County Circuit Court in Illinois.
Syngenta officials also debated whether to encourage CropLife America, the pesticide trade association now fighting the spray-drift rule, to lead a pro-pesticide campaign to shift public opinion. Citing recent industry efforts to reshape the perception of biotechnology and the plastics industry, Syngenta concluded that “the public image of Syngenta would improve if the public image of pesticides/pesticide companies improved overall.”
Dow, meanwhile, is accused of conducting an underhanded campaign against critics of chemicals like chlorpyrifos and di- oxin. “Dow hired a private security firm to obtain confidential information about Greenpeace,” charges Charlie Cray, a research specialist with the environmental group. “The firm hired former intelligence and off-duty police officers to steal documents from Greenpeace’s offices and plant paid informants inside allied organizations.” Last year, after Greenpeace filed a lawsuit against Dow and other defendants, a Superior Court judge in Washington, DC, dismissed four of its claims—a decision the group is appealing—but allowed part of the suit to move forward. (Dow officials did not respond to requests for comment.)
In the current battle over pesticide regulation, Dow has given presentations to agricultural officials portraying groups like PAN as outside the mainstream. Last year, a Dow lobbyist in New Zealand attempted to downplay PAN’s arguments about chlori- pyrifos. In one slide, he argued that the pesticide must be safe because it is not listed as a toxicant under Prop 65 in California—a state in which Dow dominates the political process.
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While the larger efforts to control and regulate chlorpyrifos may have stalled, the EPA in February released a long-awaited rule to at least inform farmworkers of better safety standards for handling harmful pesticides. The original safety rule was created in the mid-1990s. Advocacy groups criticized it as weak and poorly enforced. An updated version was supposed to be released in 2008; why the EPA took another five-plus years to act remains a mystery.
The newly released rule builds on the existing regulations to ensure that all workers handling pesticides are at least 16 years old (except in cases of family farms). The rule also updates the law to ensure that workers will undergo training every year (rather than the previous standard of every five years) to learn about the health risks associated with pesticide use and how to handle these chemicals safely during application.
But along with that step forward, there has also been a step back. The EPA’s new standard removes a requirement that farms provide a central posting of information about pesticides. Under the new proposal, workers may obtain pesticide information if they ask for it, but the requirement that such information must be posted in an area where workers congregate has been eliminated.
So why the delays, and the arguably weakened pesticide safety rules? “Our best guess is that there has been very strong industry pushback,” says Dr. Reeves.
She might be on to something. White House logs show that just weeks before the EPA released the new worker-protection standard, there was at least one major meeting between administration officials and four senior officers from CropLife America.
Read all of the stories in this special report:
“How Pesticides Harm the Young Brain,” by Susan Freinkel
A pathbreaking study detects a range of developmental problems in children born to mothers who toiled in pesticide-treated fields—but will anything be done?
“6 Ways to Avoid Eating Pesticide Residue,” by Susan Freinkel
With regulation inadequate and children especially vulnerable, it makes sense for consumers to try to minimize exposure.