Just science?

canada_02.jpgGreetings from California detours north of the border this week to answer criticisms of EWG by a Canadian newspaper columnist. His newspaper has (so far) refused to print the response below, so we're publishing it here.

Recently, Ottawa Citizen columnist Dan Gardner took aim at “chemical paranoia.” His target was Enviromental Working Group’s Shopper’s Guide, which lists supermarket fruits and vegetables highest and lowest in pesticide residues, based on 43,000 samples tested by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Gardner charged that EWG is promoting “chemophobia” by needlessly alarming consumers about trace amounts of pesticides on produce. To support his view, he interviewed Dr. Joe Schwarcz of McGill University in Toronto – syndicated columnist, CBC TV personality and director of the university’s Office for Science and Society, which its website says is dedicated to “demystifying science for the public [and] the media.”

Unlike activist groups that “talk a lot about what the science says, but have their own interests," Gardner wrote, Schwarcz “delivers science unfiltered. No politics or ideology. Just science." Schwarcz declared EWG’s guide meaningless, irrelevant, and said the amounts of pesticide on produce are too small to worry about: "Where is the information that the level of pesticide contamination that they're talking about has any relevance to humans?”

But when it comes to questions of pesticide safety, Schwarcz has a clear conflict of interest.

The Office for Science and Society has been funded in part by the Council for Biotechnology Information. The Council is an agricultural industry front group whose members are Monsanto, DuPont, Dow AgroSciences, Bayer CropScience, Syngenta and BASF – all companies with a vested interest in discrediting information about the health risks of pesticides. Archived web pages for the Office of Science and Society list the industry group as a supporter from 2003 until October 2007; now the website acknowledges only funding from “private parties.”

Maybe Schwarcz didn’t feel he had to disclose his ties to the pesticide industry, but Gardner could have dug it up in an hour of online research. Judging from some of his other assertions, maybe Gardner’s not that familiar with the Internet.

He blasted EWG’s produce rankings as deceptive comparisons that don’t quantify pesticide levels: “How much pesticide residue was found on onions? How much on peaches? That's what's critical.”

In fact, that information is readily available on the Shopper’s Guide website.

With two mouse clicks, you can learn that the average amount of all pesticides the FDA found on peaches is about 1.1 parts per million. The average amount found on onions is less than 0.001 parts per million, meaning peaches typically have at least 1,100 times more pesticide residue than onions. What’s more, the FDA found that almost 9 out of 10 peaches had residues of two or more pesticides, while less than 1 out of 100 onions had any at all.

Gardner made another blunder by relying on outdated science. He cited the 16th Century physician Paracelsus: “The poison is in the dose.”

Just because many things are more harmful in large doses doesn’t mean everything is safe in small doses. In recent decades, scientists have found that very small doses of some chemicals can cause greater harm, especially to growing kids, than larger doses on adults. Many prescription medicines, including the asthma inhaler Albuterol and the contraceptive Nuvaring, are active in the bloodstream at a few parts per billion or less. They carry warning labels; a pesticide-laden peach does not.

EWG’s Shopper’s Guide makes no claims that aren’t supported by independent, peer-reviewed research linking pesticides to cancer, reproductive harm and other health problems. We believe organic produce is the healthiest choice, but organic is not always available. By consistently choosing foods that are lowest in pesticide residues over those that are highest, consumers can reduce their pesticide intake by up to 90 percent.

Consumers have a right to this information. With it, they can make informed choices about what they put in their bodies. If the choice is between avoiding toxic pesticides or taking the word of a scientist funded by the pesticide industry, that’s hardly paranoia.

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