Getting to the Truth of Pesticides
03 Sep, 2009
There have been numerous concerns about pesticides and how many of them make it into food. As an example, a study conducted in 2008 in Seattle, and published on the Environmental Health Perspectives website, found traces of organophosphates—a group of pesticides that have been indicated in animal studies to affect brain development and behavior—in local Mercer Island produce.
One website, however, called WhatsOnMyFood.org, takes a much broader approach. The site not only reports which produce contains pesticides, it also lists what exactly the pesticides are and in what percentages.
The website is the project of an organization called PANNA, short for the Pesticide Action Network North America. PANNA is the North American regional center of the Pesticide Action Network (PAN), a worldwide non-profit organization that for over 25 years has been working to replace the use of hazardous pesticides with ecologically sound alternatives.
“There’s a gold mine of data on pesticides that the USDA has been compiling for years, but it is not very accessible,” Brian Hill, PANNA senior scientist and the principal architect of WhatsOnMyFood.org, told Organic Connections. “One of our unique functions at PANNA is to take authoritative information and just get it out there on the Web. WhatsOnMyFood.org was another opportunity to do that, and an opportunity on a subject that matters to a lot of people.”
Hill himself has a PhD in physics and has worked extensively in Monte Carlo Modeling, a highly technical mathematical means for calculating results of situations with multiple random factors. Hill uses his background to understand how often people will be exposed to various pesticides under different weather and application circumstances.
Analyzing the USDA data is no mean feat. The raw data is contained in a USDA program called the Pesticide Data Program, and each year for almost 20 years the USDA has been taking many thousands of samples per year and running 100 to 200 pesticide tests on those samples. “If you take thousands of samples times hundreds of tests, you’re getting upwards of a million data points a year,” Hill said. “Just looking at 2007 specifically, there were 11,683 samples with approximately 100 tests each.”
How can a non-profit organization with minimal staff possibly analyze so much data? That’s where another of Hill’s skills comes in: computer programming. Applying customized scripts,* Hill is able to get this enormous amount of data boiled down using automation.
The key element that makes PAN and WhatsOnMyFood.org stand out is the use of hard science—and there is good reason for its use. “There’s this expression ‘Speak truth to power,’” Hill remarked. “It’s not like we have a ton of power ourselves, but the very reason that we’re here doing advocacy on specific things that we choose is because we think we have the facts on our side, and so it’s one of our principal ways of changing the outcomes and of changing the decisions that are made about pesticides.
In addition to alerting consumers about pesticides, a great deal of Hill’s work is involved with influencing pesticide studies conducted by the US EPA (United States Environmental Protection Agency), which regularly evaluates pesticide safety.
“There’s no end of regulatory processes going on with pesticides,” Hill explained. “Based on pesticides that we have particular concerns about, we will often take part in the decision-making process. It is a multi-step procedure that begins with estimates of risk and concludes with ways that those risks might be ‘mitigated.’ We read and understand the US EPA’s papers on their assumptions and then respond to them.”
Is this response effective? “A lot of times they’ll respond to persuasive argument,” Hill said. “Or they’ll especially respond to an argument that hadn’t occurred to them. On the other hand, sometimes political pressures are very high and there is what we consider to be poor response. In that case, one of the things that we’re doing when we participate in one of these decision-making processes is laying the foundation for a lawsuit—if you don’t participate, you can’t sue to change the decision.”
As an example, PAN recently joined with Earth Justice and the National Resource Defense Council in filing suit on the EPA over a new rule providing for the testing of pesticides on humans. Having been a part of the process as the decision evolved, PAN was then able to join in the lawsuit.
Another example is their work on a ban of the pesticide endosulfan. “Sixty-two countries, including the European Union, have banned endosulfan—a pesticide strongly linked to birth defects—which PAN contributed to significantly,” said Hill. “There is also currently a lawsuit, which we are party to with the US EPA, because the United States is not one of the countries that have banned it. We’re optimistic that endosulfan will have its use ended as a result of that.”
PAN’s five worldwide regional centers link local and international consumer, labor, health, environmental and agricultural groups into an international citizens’ action network. The network challenges the global proliferation of pesticides and defends basic rights to health and environmental quality.
Find out what’s on your food! Visit www.WhatsOnMyFood.org.
For more information on PANNA, their activities and pesticide research, visit www.panna.org.
*script: In computer programming, a script is a program or sequence of instructions that is interpreted or carried out by another program.