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Guest Blog: Make Your Activism Personal

Barbara Rubin, AKA, “the Armchair Activist, ( sent this along to share with the SafeLawns Foundation:

Why have we made so little progress in pesticide activism during the past decade?

We know profits are at the heart of this but that has always been the case. An additional impediment is that we are also a people devoted to routines and customs, hesitant to explore new avenues of action. We become attached to ‘life-style’ rather than ‘life’, even in roles which have traditionally challenged established authority in matters of harmful public policies.

Let’s review some major issues which have barred us from attaining our goals:

Activist strategies for influencing public policy need to be updated. Petitions lead legislators to offer lip service to stated demands from significant numbers of signers, but they don’t have the power to enact change. NAFTA rules bar the US government from banning products or otherwise interfering with profits to which industry feels ‘entitled’ (chapter 11). Arguing bans won’t work because Congress won’t pass them and EPA won’t litigate them. Restrictions can be managed for long periods of time despite industry objections (see current policy change on GMO alfalfa by the USDA). When the evidence is sufficiently common knowledge to discourage litigation by industry, such restrictions are ultimately accepted (see the history of Dursban regulation). Restrictions over bans are far more likely to succeed and have the added advantage of showing we have no problem with research and development of products or industry profits. We care about honest profits through the manufacture and use of products under conditions which don’t leave a trail of sick and injured citizens, costly to all of society.

Activists will attain faster results by litigating/pushing for enforcement of existing laws. In attempting to draft new legislation, we must recognize the reasons for failure over the past decade and change the manner in which particular bills are released to the floor of the legislature for actual voting. For example, the School Environment Protection Act, (SEPA), passed twice in the Senate and is mainly remembered as a ‘success’. However, legislators involved knew that it would fail in the next hurdle of passing in the House of Representatives. In fact, SEPA has been held hostage by the Committee on Agriculture for over a decade now and will never see a floor vote. Schools aren’t farms and the HHS committees ought to be in charge of it. The Committee on Agriculture should have nothing to do with bills involving pesticides used off of farms. This is an HHS matter. Legislative lobbying needs to take a different direction in identifying barriers such as these.

It is inefficient for activists to only highlight groups of people in particular need of a new law or a ban on a particular practices (e.g.spraying malathion from helicopters in NYC). Intense local activism may succeed as it did in 2000. However, we know that individuals do very little when they feel personally disengaged from a situation which permits practices banned in one area to spread to many others quite successfully. If everyone were required to have a ‘smart meter’ (and eventually they will), the arrests of demonstrators or the calls for help on a national level would be more widespread than at present.

It is ineffective for activists to argue with industry claims that only human testing can prove a product should be restricted or removed from the marketplace. We don’t need to rely on the precautionary principle to utilize existing research in these areas. Cells respond in particular ways to poisons and those responses from animal testing has long been deemed sufficient for marketing purposes. Why not take action for ‘de-marketing’ purposes when we see evidence of abnormal endocrine responses of amphibians to atrazine herbicide or in the evidence of neuronal and immunological damage to fish species from pyrethroids? Since the active ingredients are intended to disrupt cellular function and synergists are intended to reduce detoxification efficiency, there can be no court-worthy arguments that similar effects have to be induced in live humans to know they occur. In fact, to administer or expose humans to any pesticide for non-medicinal purposes of market research for a poisonous product is a violation of the Hippocratic Oath for participating physicians since administration of poison harms by definition. While companies see the NOEL limits (No observable Effect Level), harm occurs sub-clinically. Overt harm is based upon initially ‘non-visible’ alteration of bodily functions.

Strategies for educating the public:

Make it personal: Let people know there is no indoor pest control industry. Farm chemicals have been displaced to the interior of your home, school and office. There have been no requirement for new tests in those environments of need, efficacy, residues absorbed by furnishings and porous flooring/sheet-rock etc., degradation in the absence of sunlight and content in the air circulating within closed rooms (by ppm/ppb) longitudinally following applications to interiors and/or exteriors of buildings. No studies of the effects of repeat applications of pesticides on successive days/weeks etc. have been done with regard to effects on indoor air quality. If such an industry were to be developed, it would be enormously profitable and the EPA could require an entirely new set of parameters for indoor applications.

Make it personal: Let people know that even if you suspect you were made ill by pesticides, there is virtually no way your physician can test you for recent exposures to current use pesticides including those ordered by your town! No medical labs are conducting such tests commercially at this time. This enables industry to claim they are non-toxic for lack of data challenging that statement. This should be litigated immediately on the premise that bio-monitoring for any approved chemical on the market today ought to be possible. Low or no-cost permits must be given to labs for such tests and appropriate equipment supplied regionally. This ‘coincidentally’ leads to a lack of evidence which permits formal legal challenges to proceed in the courts. Please make careful note of the fact that veterinary clinics can test animals for metabolites of these chemicals. So, when pets sicken and die from pesticides, such information is available to ‘enquiring minds’.

Make it personal: Non-profit laboratory facilities are desperately needed for use by consumers to test materials in their homes for absorption of pollutants. This includes clothing and fabrics, carpet fibers and HEPA filters in air purifiers which all easily capture particulates allowing people to know something about their homes which is otherwise invisible in every way now that low-odor pesticides have become prevalent and masking fragrances completely disguise the presence of such harmful residues for workers and tenants. Individuals submitting samples to labs must do so at high expense to companies dedicated to agricultural interests which would compete with the interests of consumers, making business relations unnecessarily complicated. We need to know the reality of pesticide concentrations in our homes from both current use pesticides and older/banned ones. Once you’ve measured (as I have) levels of chlordane above OSHA levels in homes, it is certainly ‘personal’. Chlordane was banned in 1988. Absorption by food products during storage in treated stores and home is not addressed by any agency or researcher yet is a definite hazard since kitchens are routinely treated during fumigation and one informant told me of a company used by her own landlord which sprayed the interior of her microwave oven.

Make it public: The practice of adding scents and masking fragrances to pesticides confuses consumers about the difference between ‘low-odor’ and low-toxicity chemicals. Too many consider odor a clue to the presence or absence of harmful fumes. The EPA must insist upon the addition of odorants to pesticides so all citizens (who are primary or secondary users), are aware of exposures and can attempt to limit contact. Sometimes it means altering schedules of applications between home and work or altering what is applied in one or both locales. Certainly it would permit consumers to be alert to signs and symptoms of over-exposure and be able to request information or seek medical attention for recurring problems associated with such exposures.

Make it public: The pervasive use of legal poisons is based in the absence of legal precedents which discourage misuse of toxic chemicals. The deaths of two little girls in Utah became a matter of criminal negligence because the pesticide was applied too close to the house. What if it had been applied as per ‘legal’ requirement, and the children merely became chronically ill or learning disabled? Or an elderly member of the household suddenly developed dementia? When these things are discovered, they are kept from setting precedents because lawyers no longer go to trial. Many ‘toxics’ cases are dismissed for poor prosecution on the basis of ‘sensitivity’ rather than frank poisoning. Others are dismissed for lack of evidence and some for immunity from prosecution when connected with municipal applications. The majority which retain standing with the court are settled in sealed agreements so the abuses continue in society. Litigants must obey their lawyers in consenting to such terms or be ‘fired’ as clients with no one else to take the case. Settlements must be altered to permit public disclosure as to the nature of the argument even if financial details aren’t disclosed. Anything else is really a private contract and should not concern the courts.

Make it public: Ask pesticide activist groups to compile and publish lists of court cases as reference points which will allow more of these cases to be filed and prosecuted. Too few lawyers know how to go about this and too few physicians can comfortably investigate such cases on behalf of patients. Experts need to write ‘how-to’ guides in differential diagnosis and we need to disseminate free literature (like the EPA book on Recognition and Management of Pesticide Poisoning) to medical associations.

Make it public: Require officials to add activists and litigants to the list of protected classes under discrimination laws. You may not be aware that activists and litigants are denied all manner of privileges in this country such as leases to residential properties, jobs, police protection etc. Harassment and abuse are extremely common just as union activists suffered egregious harm in earlier years (and still do). It is unfair to urge others to action without their understanding of associated risks and in the absence of recourse within the system. Currently, only employees can claim protections as whistle-blowers. Yet, many who are sickened by the practices of individuals and companies who do not employ them are subject to retaliation from social consequences to vandalism of property and brutal assaults

Make it public: We know that polluters and their ‘yes-men’ in government discriminate. Minorities and those comprising the lowest economic strata of society are far more likely to live in highly polluted areas. Many activists come from that naturally beleaguered group of citizens. The struggle for survival—making a living, dealing with environmentally induced illness and those costs—are already reducing the time and energy activists can devote to our causes. We know that industry has hired security companies, including the infamous ‘Blackwater’, to stalk and harass activists in documentation compiled by Greenpeace and award-winning journalist Jeremy Scahill. It has been my personal experience that industry tactics to further reduce the ability of effective activists to create change is through the enlistment of ‘hate’ groups to target those who can be labeled using reasons sufficient to inspire criminal action among such persons. Identifying others by race, creed, color or alleged past activities, is an easy way to direct easily manipulated people on the fringes of their own societal groupings to act while redirecting attention away from the actual source of subsversive activity. One detective termed this ’cause-stalking’ in which paid and unpaid community members bent up on removing targeted individuals from their communities for reasons of bigotry or misinformation about their history (e.g. sex offender). I believe such groups are being given funding, training and materials with which to do harm to selected ‘targets’ and will become far more numerous and powerful with such backing. I am also sending this to the Southern Poverty Law center for their further research on this matter.

About The Author

Paul Tukey

An international leader of the green movement, Mr. Tukey is a journalist, author, filmmaker, TV host, activist and award-winning public speaker, who is widely recognized as North America's leading advocate for landscape sustainability and toxic pesticide reduction strategies.

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