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---February 22, 1996---
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According to the FBI, rifle fire was responsible for 723 homicides in the U.S. in 1994. [1] Assault rifles are a subclass of rifles, so homicides by assault rifle must number fewer than 723. The exact number is not known because no government agency keeps national statistics on assault-weapon-related crimes. However, based on state and municipal surveys, and police records, several scholars and advocates have estimated that assault rifles are used in about 1% of all homicides, which would make them responsible for about 250 deaths in the U.S. each year. [2] In an effort to save these 250 lives, Congress in August, 1994, banned the sale of assault rifles. [3]

Assault rifles kill an estimated 250 people each year and pesticides kill an estimated 10,400 people each year (see REHW #481), yet assault rifles have been banned while the use of pesticides is expanding. How does such a thing happen?

Could it be because assault-weapon opponents called for a ban and mobilized for a ban, whereas most pesticide opponents have never taken such a clear, firm position? For years, most anti-pesticide activists have worked to restrict the use of pesticides through regulations based on good science. As a general strategy these activists have argued that 6 parts per million (ppm) is safe but 8 ppm is not, and they have successfully urged legislators and regulators to adopt this case-by-case, incremental approach. This general strategy, weighing the hazards of 6-vs-8-ppm, has now been embodied in a dozen major environmental laws, including the nation's pesticide laws, and has given rise to a new industry called "risk assessment." Major universities now have programs dedicated to teaching bright young scientists how to argue that 6 (or 8) ppm creates an "acceptable risk" (or an "unacceptable risk," depending on who is paying for the study).

As a tactic, for 25 years most anti-pesticide activists have written long reports proving that less is better. As a result, they have occasionally gotten their message into the back pages of the newspapers. These activists can point to risk assessments showing that pesticides are dangerous in many ways--dangerous to the people who eat pesticide residues on their food, especially children; dangerous to farmers and farm workers, and their families; and dangerous to wildlife. Unfortunately, none of this has done much good. Legislators and regulators have adopted the 6-vs-8-ppm approach, yet pesticide use has continued to increase in the U.S., and is rocketing upwards worldwide.

It is easy to show that pesticides are dangerous. There is a large body of scientific literature to point to. But it doesn't matter. The agrichemical corporations are more persuasive than the activists. The corporations spend huge sums re-electing members of Congress and "communicating" to the public that pesticidal poisons (or "crop protection tools," as they are known in the industry) have never harmed anyone. Their linchpin argument is a scare: the cost of food would go through the roof without pesticides. (Never mind that this economic argument is bogus. Since the early 1930s the federal government has maintained a 'price support' program, paying farmers not to grow certain crops, intending to keep the price of food artificially high, because American agriculture is so productive that, without price supports, the abundance of crops, coupled with the law of supply and demand, would drive the price of food so low that many farmers couldn't survive, which might endanger the nation's food supply.)

In any case, the public hears from industry that pesticides are essential. Life would be impossible without them, we are told. The public knows in its bones that pesticide residues are dangerous, and many people can remember a time when relatively few pesticides were used to grow the nation's food. Nevertheless, the anti-pesticide movement has never caught the public's imagination, chiefly because of a rigid adherence to the regulatory strategy. (One noteworthy exception is the case of the toxic growth-regulator, Alar, in which the Natural Resources Defense Council [NRDC] took its message to the public via TV using Meryl Streep, the movie star, as a spokesperson. Facing CBS News cameras, Streep said that Alar --a cancer-causing chemical --was measurable in apple juice bottled for children. (This alarming news was true. And EPA [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] has since reaffirmed its conclusion that Alar is carcinogenic.) Streep's appearance on CBS created a public outcry against Alar, followed almost immediately by a voluntary abandonment of Alar by the apple-growing industry, which has continued to grow apples profitably without Alar ever since. The food industry retaliated by suing both CBS News and NRDC. The food industry lost these lawsuits, but their publicity machine still managed to leave the impression in most peoples' minds that the Alar "scare" was not justified by the facts. Right-wing organizations, such as the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, have promoted this impression in the minds of journalists, who have spread it to the public. As a result, NRDC and others of like mind felt burned and have now generally stopped taking their case directly to the public. They are back to debating 6-vs-8-ppm with the corporate PR-scientists and their acolytes within EPA.)

Simply put, activists cut the pesticide issue in ways that don't get the general public fired up. The public can't get involved in a discussion of 6-vs-8-ppm. Even if the details of the argument were understandable to most people, which they are not, the goal of achieving 6 instead of 8 parts of poison in your soup doesn't seem interesting, exciting, or worth much effort. This leaves the debate in the hands of professional environmentalists and professional PR-scientists employed by the chemical and food corporations. These groups both make hefty salaries debating each other, while the public continues to be poisoned bit by bit without knowing what's going on.

Isn't it time the anti-pesticide "movement" recognized that its past efforts have failed because its strategies, its tactics and even its goals have been ill chosen? Likewise, isn't it time that some of the groups trying to stop the use of bovine growth hormone (known as rBGH or BST) learned the same lesson: debating risk and advocating better regulation or labeling simply hasn't worked AND CAN'T WORK. The public can't get excited about this approach, and without support from a goodly (and vocal) portion of the public, no anti-pesticide or anti-growth-hormone-in-milk campaign can succeed. This all seems obvious, yet for 25 years the 6-vs-8-ppm approach has been tried and tried and tried again. An entire generation of environmental scientist-lawyer-activists has raised families and put its children through college pursuing this failed strategy, working to achieve goals hardly worth achieving. In recent years large private foundations have been funding yet another "pesticide coalition" to pursue the 6-vs-8-ppm strategy with renewed vigor. This coalition is spending bundles of money, diverting the energies of the activist community (especially the grass-roots activists, who are wasting time AND losing funding to the big enviro groups as they participate together in the coalition), and preventing better approaches from being tried. Whether they recognize it or not, these foundations have put themselves and their coalition partners on the same page with the pesticide corporations, who thrive and prosper so long as the debate is restricted to 6-vs-8-ppm. Meanwhile the coalition's knowledgeable activists seem reluctant to point out that this emperor is parading in the buff.

The growing group of people who want to get dioxin out of the food supply (see REHW #479) need to examine these histories. The problem of pesticides and the problem of dioxin have similar features. How do people get dioxin into their bodies? According to EPA, we get about 90% of our daily dioxin dose by consuming meat, fish and dairy products (milk, cream, cheese, ice cream, ice milk, etc.). [4]

The source of 95% of the dioxin in our food is incinerators, according to EPA officials. [5] One obvious goal, therefore, should be to shut down all incinerators. (An alternative is to phase out chlorine as an industrial feed stock because chlorine gives rise to dioxin when it finds its way into an incinerator. This is a far larger goal, but would provide many additional benefits.) And who should be advocating for these goals? The food industry, of course. But they're not, because activists have not focused public attention on the very real dangers of dioxin in food. If the food industry were to feel some heat, some loss of profits, because of the deadly dioxin in the food they're selling, they would be motivated to go after the sources of dioxin. Suddenly the anti-dioxin movement would have some new, powerful (though uncomfortable), allies. It would be a new day.
                                                                         --Peter Montague
[1] Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Department of Justice UNIFORM CRIME REPORTS FOR THE UNITED STATES 1994 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1995), Table 2.10 on pg. 18.

[2] See David B. Kopel, "Assault Weapons," in David B. Kopel, editor, GUNS; WHO SHOULD HAVE THEM? (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1995), pgs. 159-232; and see David B. Kopel, "Statement of David B. Kopel," ASSAULT WEAPONS: A VIEW FROM THE FRONT LINES; HEARING BEFORE THE COMMITTEE ON THE JUDICIARY, UNITED STATES SENATE, ONE HUNDRED THIRD CONGRESS, ON S. 639... AND S. 653... AUGUST 3, 1993, SERIAL NO. J-103-25 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1994), pgs. 86-90; see also pgs. 128 and 132 which are a reprint of pages from Gary Kleck, POINT BLANK; GUNS AND VIOLENCE IN AMERICA (New York: Aldine De Gruyter, date unknown [1992? 1993?]). Kleck is a professor at Florida State University in Tallahassee. Kopel is employed by the Cato Institute in D.C. And see Edward C. Ezell, "Testimony to be delivered to the Constitution Subcommittee, Senate Committee on the Judiciary, May 10, 1989," in ASSAULT WEAPONS, HEARINGS BEFORE THE SUBCOMMITTEE ON THE CONSTITUTION OF THE COMMITTEE ON THE JUDICIARY, UNITED STATES SENATE, ONE HUNDRED FIRST CONGRESS, FIRST SESSION, ON S. 386... AND S. 474 FEBRUARY 10 AND MAY 5, 1989, SERIAL NO. J-101-1 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1990), pgs. 384-393. When he testified, Ezell was Curator of the National Firearms Collection at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History. See also Kathleen Maguire and Ann L. Pastore, editors, SOURCEBOOK OF CRIMINAL JUSTICE STATISTICS -1994 [U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics NCJ-154591] (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1995), Table 3-99 on pg. 318. And, finally, see Council on Scientific Affairs, American Medical Association "Assault Weapons as a Public Health Hazard in the United States," JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION Vol. 267 No. 22 (June 10, 1992), pgs. 3067-3070.

[3] Details of the ban are discussed in Jeffrey Y. Muchnick, "The Assault Weapons Ban--Saving Lives," UNIVERSITY OF DAYTON LAW REVIEW Vol. 20 No. 2 (Winter 1995), pgs. 641-651.

[4] Michael J. DeVito and others, "Comparisons of Estimated Human Body Burdens of Dioxinlike Chemicals and TCDD Body Burdens in Experimentally Exposed Animals," ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH PERSPECTIVES Vol. 103, No. 9 (September, 1995), pgs. 820-831.

[5] Lynn Goldman, "Statement of Lynn Goldman, M.D., Assistant Administrator for Prevention, Pesticides and Toxics, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, September 13, 1994." (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, September 13, 1994), gives the 95% figure.

Descriptor terms: mortality statistics; pesticides; assault rifles; risk assessment; agriculture; farming; alar; nrdc; meryl streep; apples; dioxin strategy; food safety;

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