An astonishing double standard exists in the United States. When the federal government bans a pesticide, pro-industry loopholes allow agrochemical companies to recoup lost profits by manufacturing the same pesticide for use abroad. In 2013, data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) showed that pesticides — banned, restricted or unregistered in the U.S. — were manufactured in 23 states for export to other countries.
With no comprehensive global regulatory framework to guide policy for transport, storage and use, the U.S. consciously subjects vulnerable agricultural workers overseas to chemicals known to cause harm and death, and widens international dependence of agriculture on pesticides. Every registered pesticide has a “tolerance” of how much residue can remain on a food product before it is deemed unsafe for human consumption. Pesticides deemed too dangerous or unregistered with the EPA cannot be sold in the U.S. Therefore, the same chemical should be deemed too dangerous to be used on foreign-grown food that will be eaten by Americans.
In 2015, the six largest pesticide producers controlled 75 percent of the pesticide market; over the past three decades, collusion between government, regulators and powerful lobbyists have blocked all efforts to stem the steady tide of chemical pesticide use. The EPA has no mandate to collect comprehensive data on pesticide exports and cannot access corporate export declarations. The most recent data are from nearly two decades ago. An exhaustive study found that from 2001 to 2003, the U.S. exported 28 million pounds of banned, severely restricted or unregistered pesticides to foreign countries — nearly 13 tons per day.
While the U.S. is required to inform countries when a pesticide is not registered in the U.S., there is no assurance that the receiving official will forward the data to the user of the chemical. Agrochemical companies can satisfy labeling requirements simply by placing labels on shipping containers rather than on the product container.
The burden of regulatory precautions disproportionately falls on developing countries — such as Ecuador, Brazil, Indonesia and Malaysia — located mainly in South America and Southeast Asia. An overwhelming number of fatalities, some 99 percent, occur in countries in the Global South, where regulations are weaker. Vulnerable to both acute and chronic poisoning, agricultural workers are routinely exposed to toxic pesticides via spray, drift, or direct contact with treated crops and soil and from accidental spills. Chronic exposure has been linked to cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, hormone disruption, sterility, suicide and numerous neurological health effects. Acute health problems range from skin disorders to death, and include respiratory, gastrointestinal, circulatory and neurological disease.
Given the reality of how these pesticides are actually used (without appropriate protective equipment, lack of proper disposal, etc.), halting exportation is critical. The World Health Organization estimated in 1990 that “up to 25 million workers in developing countries” suffer from pesticide poisoning every year. Since the sales volume of pesticides has increased, it is probable that the number of poisoning incidents is much higher. According to World Health Organization data published in 2008, unintentional ingestion, inhalation or contact with chemicals caused 346,000 deaths from acute poisonings in 2004. The global impact of self-poisoning from preventable pesticide ingestion was estimated to amount to 186,000 deaths.
Eugenia Mejías, a seasonal laborer in Chile, watched her 14-year-old daughter Evelyn die from severe congenital disabilities — hydrocephalus, misshapen and paralyzed legs, and a twisted, partially exposed spine. During her pregnancy, Mejías lived yards away from an apple orchard where planes regularly sprayed pesticides without taking precautionary measures to protect nearby workers and residents. This is just one story of many that illustrate the dangers of the pesticide cycle.
Damage to those in the global South is only part of the story. This disturbing practice creates a “circle of poison” where we are unknowingly consuming U.S.-banned chemicals in food produced in conditions dangerous to agricultural workers and their families. How can ethical responsibility for hazardous chemicals end at our borders?
The Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) efforts to protect U.S. consumers from potentially harmful pesticide residues in imported food is grossly inadequate. Despite widespread contamination of imported food, FDA inspectors rarely seize or refuse shipments. Only 2 percent of imported produce is removed for analysis, while the rest of the shipment proceeds to the marketplace. By the time the test results are known, the food has already been consumed.
Imports have increased steadily for decades; more than half of the fresh fruit and almost a third of the fresh vegetables purchased in the U.S. are imported from other countries. Produce is laced with low levels of pesticide residues, and metabolites are now detected in produce, water and human tissue throughout the world. These non-degrading metabolites build up and persist in the body, and can be transferred to children in utero and through breastmilk, causing a number of detrimental health effects, such as hormonal disruption, infertility or cancer. Dramatic increases in chemical use in the last several decades parallel the increased incidence of chronic diseases associated with environmental contamination.
While agrochemical companies exaggerate food shortages if pesticides are not used for crop production, benefits are short-term and lead to further pest resistance and then greater loss of crop yields. Pesticide misuse contributes to the development of resistant strains of disease-carrying insects. Notably, resistance in malaria-carrying mosquitos has been an important contributor to the recent resurgence of the debilitating disease.
Not only should the export of banned pesticides be prohibited, but a precautionary approach should also be enacted. Based on Sweden’s regulatory framework, the U.S. should enact a “substitution principle” that forbids the use of chemical products when a less-hazardous substitute is available. Under this scheme, if a new, safer pesticide is registered, the older one automatically loses its registration.
The development of a sensible pesticide export policy must recognize the importance of producing a worldwide supply of safe and affordable food that protects all citizens of Earth, at home and abroad. Lack of effective regulation detrimentally harms not only individuals and the environment where food is produced, but also individuals in the U.S. — the food processors and the consumers. No one is immune from this incessant circle of poison which must be broken.