Cancer And The Poisons In
Our Food - Part 1
Chris Wheeler - 2/8/00
Read the findings of a researcher with no financial involvement in the food production industry.
Pesticide residues in Australia and New Zealand
A growing body of evidence is pointing strongly towards the pesticide residues in our daily diet as being the prime cause of the high rates of cancer in both Australia and New Zealand.
Both countries carry out regular diet surveys demonstrating residue levels of carcinogenic pesticides in our food and water, although health authorities downplay the significance of the data, saying that residue levels give 'no cause for concern', etc.
However using official data from both countries we know that not only does our daily diet show up with higher levels of pesticide residues than is typical in Northern Hemisphere countries, but that because of the lax standards employed by regulatory and Health Ministry officials and the use by our farmers and growers of pesticides banned elsewhere, New Zealanders and Australians are exposed to a wider range with higher risk of carcinogenic pesticides than is common overseas.
The pesticide factor in cancer was emphasised five years ago in a campaign led by two leading consumer groups in the USA. On July 12th, 1995, Food & Water Inc and the Environmental Research Foundation published an ad in the New York Times comparing pesticide- created deaths from cancer to deaths by assault rifles.
The issue was very topical at the time, but the shock effect of the ad came more from the content of the ad with the headline "Recently Congress banned the Sale of Assault Rifles - However, it is still perfectly legal to kill someone with a zucchini..." and the accompanying message "Each year thousands of men, women and children die from cancer caused by toxic pesticides on fruits and vegetables, yet these poisons remain legal. This poisoning must stop... Next time you shop, tell your produce manager you want the toxic food out of the store".
The ad and the accompanying US-wide wave of consumer action against cancer-causing pesticides in the daily diet, had a shock effect on American farmers and growers long-used to doing whatever they liked within the lax regulatory structure relating to pesticide use on food crops.
A number of States even retaliated after pressure from the chemical industry and the chemical farming lobby by introducing legislation making it an offence to libel the quality of conventionally-grown fruit and vegetables. These "vegetable defamation" laws are at present facing a wave of law-testing litigation from American consumer and civil liberties groups outraged by this attack on the public's right to know and freedom of speech.
Cancer and pesticides in your diet
However, the consumer campaign was backed by a large number of scientific studies, including one from the National Academy of Science (NAS) in 1987 (Richard Wiles et al, Regulating Pesticides in Food; the Delaney Paradox, National Academy Press, Washington), which looked specifically at types of pesticides, their potential to cause cancer and their residue levels in the American daily diet.
NZ's high exposure to carcinogenic pesticides
It should be inserted at this point that NZ children (and adults) are suffering some remarkable exposure levels to carcinogenic pesticides over and above that of similar data for the USA.
What was particularly interesting in the NAS study was that it attempted to calculate how many people would die from cancer per year as a result of consuming various items of food contaminated with 28 typical carcinogenic pesticides. NAS worked out that the 28 pesticides at 'normal' permitted residue levels in the daily American diet would cause 5.85 cancers per thousand people per lifetime.
As Peter Montague of the Environment Research Foundation pointed out at the time, these figures represented 20,800 pesticide-caused cancers per year in the USA and even assuming that only half died (a highly conservative estimate), this meant 10,400 deaths per year!
Both New Zealand and the United States regularly analyse normal food items as a necessary check on what pesticides farmers and growers are using and how much of the chemical used is showing up in our daily diet. As we demonstrate regularly in the pages of the Soil & Health Association journal Soil & Health, it is possible to compare data from the NZ Ministry of Health's Total Diet Survey with US data to come up with some useful comparisons between the two countries regarding pesticide residues in our respective daily diets.
NZ data worse than USA's!
Although the NZ data on pesticides in food is much less comprehensive than the US data, which Peter Montague criticises for its inadequacy, our agricultural practice follows that of the USA closely and all the pesticide chemicals used in the USA are used here, albeit with fewer regulatory controls. Thus in broad terms we can use the NAS method to come to parallel assumptions about the number of cancer deaths in this country.
NAS estimated that the total risk from the 28 pesticides was 5.85 cancers per thousand people per lifetime. Dividing this by 70 (years in a lifetime) and multiplying it by the number of groups of 1000 in the NZ population (3,800 such groups) yields an annual estimated pesticide-caused cancer incidence of 317.6 in NZ.
Over the past few years Association member and Safe Food Campaign activist Alison White has been reviewing the food pesticide residue data for both New Zealand and the United States and publishing the results in Soil & Health and the Safe Food Campaign's regular newsletters. It was her data that Sue Kedgley used so effectively in her recent book Eating Safely in a Toxic World.
Alison's studies show NZ children (and adults) are suffering some remarkable exposure levels over and above that of similar data for the USA. For example, the pirimiphos-methyl daily intake of young children in micrograms per kilo of body weight was 0.0028 in the US in one study carried out in the late 80s and 0.715 in NZ during the same period - that is, NZ's rate for this mutagenic pesticide was 255.36 times higher than the US level. Similarly for fenitrothion the figures were 0.0009 in the US and 0.726 in NZ, i.e. NZ figures were 806.67 times higher than the US level. Fenitrothion is a suspected mutagen, a suspected viral enhancer implicated in Reye's syndrome, an immunotoxin and a cause of behavioural deficits in the newborn.
Don't be fooled by official promises.
This data has been repeated incidently in study after study in New Zealand, so don't get fooled into complacency by any official promises that the situation is better in Year 2000. It isn't.
Remember, bureaucrats ALWAYS lie.
Remember how Part 1 ended?
- Bureaucrats ALWAYS lie.
Pay more attention to the number of people around you dying from cancer than any Health Ministry, etc, promises that they're lowering the permitted contaminants in your diet. The cancer statistics tell you what's really happening.
The Apple and Pear Marketing Board or whatever they call themselves now, were threatening me with litigation only a couple of years ago for mentioning that major UK supermarket chain Tescos had put them on notice that NZ apples would be banned unless pesticide residue levels in them were drastically lowered. 'See you in court!' was my reply. What I mentioned to the media at the time was that NZ only exports apples with the LOWEST residues. So the Poms were complaining that our LOW residue export standard was way too high!
Apples for local market a real hazard
But heh! The apples dumped on the local Kiwi market are the real hazard. WE get the high residue crap that ENZA/Apple & Pear or whatever they're called KNOW won't be acceptable anywhere else in the world but silly old Godzone! And latest NZ food basket studies, despite the deliberate fudging of data and the way sampling is carried out, still show unacceptable levels of pesticide residues and other chemical contaminants in our food.
Give us this day our daily (poisoned) bread
Take some more examples. Pirimiphos-methyl is a pesticide widely used in New Zealand on food products as various as wheat (flour), apples, and celery. Both it and fenitrothion have been found in a large range of NZ foods (17 and 21 foods respectively in one sampling) - mostly foods containing grain such as pasta, bran flakes, bread, pastry, biscuits, sausages and meat pies. Bran flakes and wholemeal bread showed the highest residues in one test - 1.4ppm and an astounding 16ppm. So much for healthy wholemeal bread!
NZ estimate of 317.6 pesticide induced cancers annually far too low
On these grounds alone we would have to multiply the NZ estimate of 317.6 pesticide induced cancers annually by at least a factor of 10 (3176 cancers per year) or even more to arrive at a realistic annual cancer rate for the NZ diet.
What we start to see, in fact, are some solid reasons for New Zealand's record holding status in bowel cancer, breast cancer and childhood leukaemias.
Focus on breast cancer
The mutilating conventional treatment of breast cancer with the heavy psychological burden it carries in our culture makes the breast cancer issue of particular relevance at this point in our discussion. According to NZ breast surgeon Ian Campbell, as reported in Breast Cancer Action Aotearoa NZ Inc's newsletter (July 1995), New Zealand has the second highest death rate from breast cancer in the world and the highest rate in the world for women aged 40-49.
Above average rates of pesticide application and high rates of breast cancer
Given the evidence of above average rates of pesticide application in agriculture in this country our high rates of breast cancer make sense.
High cancer rate in horticultural area
Contributory evidence arrived in late 1994 when a South African doctor - Dr Jonathon Kuttner - new to the ways of New Zealand medicine and therefore unaware of the unofficial wall of silence his profession keeps around the pesticide issue - went public with the news that he had found rates of breast cancer in his Pukekohe/Waiuku practice area far above the national average.
This particular region is Auckland's major horticultural production area with large scale pesticide use, particularly of the organochlorine chemical group which overseas research has suggested is implicated as a cause of breast cancer. The area is also reputedly a major source of children suffering from leukaemia according to nursing staff at Auckland's oddly named children's 'Starship' Hospital.
Dr Kuttner quickly became silent on the issue as his profession and the media rounded on him. When we suggested to an otherwise adventurous TV3 documentary team that the issue was worth following up the eventual reply was that Dr Kuttner was recanting and had re- adjusted his figures from "4 times the national average" to "2.8 times the national average", a rate which still made the story newsworthy given the known facts on New Zealand's status as a breast cancer record holder.
Total blackout on breast cancer/pesticides issue!
What was curious - even to a hardened cynic on such issues as myself - was the total blackout on the whole breast cancer/pesticides issue. Even Anita McNaught, usually a feisty presenter on women's issues on TV, couldn't see the point of chasing the story any further. The fact that a major agricultural production area of New Zealand - incidentally, no different in general pesticide usage from at least a dozen other areas scattered around New Zealand including parts of Canterbury - was showing HIGHER rates of breast cancer than the already record high rates for the country as a whole just wasn't considered newsworthy while alarming numbers of women are dying of breast cancer or being mutilated by BMW/Mercedes-driving male surgeons! Get real!
Breast cancer & pesticides discussed in Soil and Health
In New Zealand, the Soil & Health Association has persisted in bringing up the pesticide issue as part of its agricultural reform platform. For example, in our August/September, 1994 issue of Soil & Health, our Pesticides Campaign coordinator Meriel Watts wrote: "Of particular concern to women is the increasing number of reports linking breast cancer to organochlorine pesticides. Breast cancer rates are climbing in New Zealand - this disease claims the lives of more women between the ages of 35 and 50 than any other disease."
She then went on to point out the growing weight of evidence for a pesticide connection to breast cancer, starting off with the Kuttner evidence mentioned earlier and adding: "Dr. Samuel Epstein (1993) attributes the modern epidemic of breast cancer, in part, to environmental contaminants. He points the finger particularly to organochlorine pesticides which mimic oestrogen: 'The mechanism of action of organochlorine carcinogens in relation to breast cancer probably involves their oestrogenic properties, reflecting their potent induction of p-450 cytochrome mixed-function oxidases, stimulation of oestrogen metabolism and binding to human receptors; such properties reflect the recent characterisation of these organochlorines as xeno-estrogens.' "
DDT and breast cancer
Dr. Mary Wolfe of Mt. Sinai School of Medicine has linked DDT with breast cancer. Her study on New York City women revealed a four times higher level of breast cancer amongst women with high levels of DDE (the breakdown product of DDT) in their blood than women with low levels (RHWN, 1993). A study sponsored by the NZ Department of Health in the late 80s demonstrated significant levels of DDE in the breast milk of New Zealand women.
Effects of endosulfan and atrazine
Dr. Ana Soto of Tufts University has demonstrated the oestrogen-like effect of endosulfan (NYCAP, 1993), a pesticide in common use in Australasian horticulture and one particularly in favour in Dr Kuttner's Waiuku/Pukekohe area and throughout Canterbury horticultural areas. Dr. Epstein, also reports on the link between atrazine (another pesticide commonly used in NZ and present as a contaminant in aquifers commonly used in public water supply in the Canterbury, Marlborough, Hawkes Bay, Waikato, etc agricultural regions) and breast cancer, through the herbicide's "hormonal effects on the hypothalamic-pituitary- gonadal axis, with marked inhibition of 5-alpha steroid reductase."
Israel bans DDT, BHC and lindane - breast cancer rate falls
The Israeli Breast Cancer Anomaly (Westin, 1990) is a telling piece of historical evidence of the role of organochlorine pesticides in breast cancer. In the 1970s Israel had a breast cancer rate double that of other countries with comparable diets and lifestyles; like other countries that rate was rising. But Israel also had very high levels of organochlorine residues in breast milk - that of a chlorine pesticide BHC was 800 times the level in USA. Public outcry resulted in the banning of the organochlorines DDT, BHC and lindane in 1978. Over the ensuing years to 1986, Israel's breast cancer trend reversed and Israel became the only industrialised country with a falling rate.
It's still talked about worldwide as an interesting phenomenon by 'scientific experts' (largely male, of course), but completely ignored as an obvious example of how to lower breast cancer rates worldwide.
Lindane in lice shampoos, pesticide in chocolate
Chemist shops in New Zealand still sell lice shampoos for our children containing lindane, and major chocolate producer Cadburys UK have recently admitted the pesticide contaminates their chocolate as a result of its use by tropical cocoa producers. That piece of news reached me in Melbourne yesterday. It means New Zealand chocolate will also contain the same contaminant. And so it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut would agree!
Is there any serious interest in lowering cancer rates in NZ?
Who can seriously say there is really any serious interest in lowering breast cancer rates, or, for that matter, ANY cancer rates in New Zealand? Certainly not our clapped out Ministry of Health, the Cancer Society, the breast cancer surgeons and oncologists or the farcical Australia New Zealand Food Authority who 'police' what contaminants are allowed into our daily diet. They recently INCREASED for goodness sake(!) the allowable levels of the now well-established carcinogenic herbicide Roundup/glyphosate in our food just to help Monsanto's sales figures.
It's a strange world we live in!