Spoon-Feeding Poison

EPA Opens the Door to Testing Bug Killers on People

In another experiment, conducted in 1997 at the Central Toxicology Laboratory, researchers gave oral doses of dichlorvos, a common insecticide, to a group of six young men. When four of them suffered a dangerous drop in vital enzyme levels, they had to withdraw from the test. With only two subjects able to complete the doses, the Central Toxicology Laboratory announced that "no symptoms or adverse effects . . . were reported." They skirted the fact that two-thirds of the participants had to drop out and effectively asserted that the results derived from two people adequately reflected the potential harm to 266 million U.S. citizens.

And there is potential harm. Pesticides eat away at an enzyme called cholinesterase, which plays a key role in all physical movement. It sweeps away chemical debris between nerve cells, allowing those cells to fire up to 1,000 electric impulses to each other every second. Pesticides break down cholinesterase, leaving millions of chemical messages to clog the works. In mild cases, this leads to nausea, sweating, uncontrollable drooling, headaches, and vomiting. In severe cases, it causes muscular tremors, abnormally low blood pressure, loss of bowel functions, slowed heart rates, and even death.

But test groups rarely get that sick. And that's no surprise, considering their size and make-up. They're usually limited to between six and 50 people, typically young and healthy adults who are paid anywhere from $300 to $1,000. The studies are advertised in local newspapers or on college campuses, specifically targeted to attract people from low-income or minority communities.

illustration: Anthony Freda

Pesticide companies insist that trying out their wares on you and your neighbors allows idiosyncratic human reactions to surface. "These safety factors are necessary," said Ray McAllister, vice president for science and regulatory affairs for CropLife America, a lobbying group representing 41 corporations, including Dow, DuPont, and Monsanto. "If we don't know how humans react, then we can't be confident of safety."

The industry is lining the campaign coffers on Capitol Hill. In the five years since the EPA stopped looking at human research, the Center for Responsive Politics reports, companies providing agricultural services and products donated more than $20 million to political campaigns, almost 70 percent of which went to Republicans.

« Previous Page