News from the United States recently has focused a lot on the dangers of food items imported from China. It seems many of them are saturated with pesticides and other health-endangering chemicals. We can be thankful that the hazardous items are being identified and pulled from the shelves. Our bodies are already saturated with far too many unhealthy substances being added to our food, air, water and even the furniture in our homes.
Most of the news reports put the blame squarely on China and other countries the United States imports food products from. That is the simple and easy explanation, but by far not the entire story.
Farmers in Thailand, for example, are under pressure to produce higher-yielding crops in order to compete with subsidized foods produced on corporate farms in America. To increase their yields, they rely on chemicals to kill insects and weeds, and on chemical fertilizers to make the land more "fertile." A great many of these chemicals are produced in the United States by companies such as Bayer, Cyanamid, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont, Novartis and Zeneca.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has categorized 73 percent of the chemicals imported into Thailand as extremely toxic or highly toxic. In North America these chemicals are either totally banned, or they can only be used by licensed specialists who must carry out a number of stringent precautions. In Thailand, however, these chemicals are easily available to farmers who are too often unaware of the dangers they create for the health of the farmers, their families and the consumers of their products. In fact, package labels are often in English rather than Thai, making it impossible for rural farmers to become aware of the hazards of using the products. Few farmers wear protective clothing when mixing and applying the poisons and news reports occasionally carry pictures of farmers using their bare hands to mix the chemicals in water.
While many of these chemicals might be banned in the U.S. or sold legally only to licensed specialists, they can be exported to other countries and the exporting companies do not feel responsible to make certain that those receiving and using the chemicals are properly trained or protected. Thus many third world farmers are suffering the effects of pesticide and herbicide poisoning.
For example, Folidol, the Bayer brand name for methyl parathion, is perhaps the most popular insecticide on the Cambodian market. Folidol, along with many other dangerous chemicals, is being illegally exported to Cambodia through Thailand and Vietnam. Cambodia serves as a dumping ground for products that cannot be sold in its neighboring countries. The multinational firms that manufacture the chemicals say that they are not responsible because they do not directly market to Cambodia.
There are immediate side-effects from inappropriate use of the chemicals such as blisters on the skin, fever, severe diarrhea and body pains. But of more concern are the chronic long-term effects such as cancer and endocrine disruption. For rural people living below the poverty line, such health problems not only destroy their ability to work, but also destroy the future of their family. Treatment is expensive and often not available in the rural areas which leaves them to fend for themselves.
While the U.S. government makes attempts to regulate the use of dangerous chemicals in the United States, they are not doing enough to control the production and export of the same. Nor are chemical companies that export these products often enough held responsible for the destruction to the health of users in developing countries.
But then the story comes back to us. Farmers in developing countries lose their health by using dangerous U.S.-produced chemicals on their fruit and vegetable gardens, the produce of which is often exported for consumption by Americans. The poisons produced by American companies, but banned for use in the United States, find their way back to American tables on imported food products. This is what the U.S. military calls "blowback" or any negative effect one suffers from one's own weapons.
So perhaps shouting at China for selling poison-laden produce to the United States is not the only thing we need to be doing. A greater challenge for us is to see to it that our own companies act more responsibly in their global dealings. Otherwise, we will continue to suffer from the blowback.
(See more information at <http://www.communityipm.org/toxictrail/issue1-Industry.htm>)