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Poisoning Our Children: The Parent's Guide to the Myths of Safe Pesticides

In the U.S., there are about 80,000 registered chemicals. Of these, only a few hundred are actually tested for safety, and even that testing is considered inadequate by most toxicologists. Part of the problem is that most chemicals are tested in isolation. In real world application, however, most chemicals are combined with others, and the few studies done on synergetic effects reveal even nontoxic chemicals can become toxic when mixed together.

While there are many sources of chemical exposure, our food is a significant one, as most conventionally farmed foods are sprayed with pesticides. The chemical industry would have you believe pesticide residues on food is of no major concern.

Others vehemently disagree. To help parents sort out truth from myth, André Leu, former president of International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) and current international director of Regeneration International, wrote "Poisoning Our Children: The Parent's Guide to the Myths of Safe Pesticides."

In 2014, I interviewed him about his first book, "The Myths of Safe Pesticides," which reveals the vacuum of scientific evidence for the safety of pesticides. As noted by Leu, the safety of pesticides is "based on data-free assumptions."

"When I was researching data, I realized there's absolutely no scientific evidence at all about the safety of pesticides and other chemicals for our children. Yet, we have hundreds of scientific studies showing the damage that the smallest amount of pesticides can do. The fact is the science shows there's absolutely no safe level of these chemicals for children. I think it's very important for parents to learn about it and be aware of what the science says."

How Chemical Industry Manipulates Data to Suppress Concerns

A key argument in his book is that the agricultural industry and global chemical industry have manipulated the system to control and suppress safety concerns. The process is called “regulatory capture.” This is where the industry actually captures the regulators, and the regulators now work for the industry instead of working for the public. A number of toxic industries have used the same playbook to achieve this aim, including the tobaccoasbestos, lead and pesticide industries.

Part and parcel of this process is the revolving door between government and industry, where regulators are given high-paying jobs in the industry, and industry executives get hired as senior managers in regulatory agencies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), where they start approving the products of their former company. "That is really a form of corruption," Leu says, "But we see this everywhere around the world. In every country I look at, the regulators are owned by the industry."

The tobacco industry really perfected the regulatory capture strategy, and other industries have boldly followed in its footsteps. Take lead, for example. It’s now widely acknowledged that lead is a toxin that causes brain damage and lowers IQ. This recognition was largely the result of the tireless efforts of Clair Patterson, Ph.D., a geochemist who took on the oil companies, exposed the fraud being committed and pushed to get lead removed from gasoline. You can read more about this in “The Heroes Who Sunk Lead."

It's a classic example of how dangerous chemicals and metals can get introduced into the environment, primarily as the result of benefiting some large corporate infrastructure. It's also an inspiring example of how a single individual can change the whole system and protect millions from unnecessary harm.

Toxic Limits Based on Assumptions

Aside from regulatory capture, another strategy used by the chemical industry is to manipulate the legal limits for the toxin in question. This is crucial, because if you rig the game so that the limit is higher than it should be, the industry can contaminate the environment without taking a financial hit or having to make any changes to the product or sales strategy.

Part of manipulating the safety limits involve suppressing independent data that raise red flags. “There are lots of independent scientists and researchers. They publish in scientific journals. This is regarded as the gold standard in research. But this evidence gets suppressed,” Leu says.

Instead, regulators take into account primarily studies submitted by the corporations themselves, and most of these studies are confidential, so the public — as well as other scientists and researchers — cannot access them. So, regulators make decisions on the safety of poisons in our food and environment based on data provided by the company selling the toxin, and no outsider can review that evidence.

"To me, that's another sign of corruption," Leu says. "If these were good studies, why are they frightened of a transparent and open system? Why don't they publish them and allow independent scientists to peer review them if that's the gold standard of science?"

The myth here, the general perception, is that we have objective federal regulatory agencies that do independent testing to validate the safety of the chemicals they permit. But that's not the case at all. The regulatory agencies rarely do any independent testing. Instead, they make assumptions about safety and toxicity limits based on the confidential testing done by the chemical manufacturer.