In Corporations We Trust – NOT ; More discussion with the WSJ

August 29th, 2009

The author of the story about the Scotts company entering the ‘naturals’ market replied to my letter to her editor most generously (see my last blog entry). She discussed her understanding of the issues I had raised and I have no doubt that she grasps many of the issues involved. However, not being a particularly skilled writer myself, I evidently hadn’t made my point adequately regarding the need for balance in articles about issues few readers will comprehend. As Ms. Bounds’ email was personal to me, I will not post it here. However, here was my reply to it.

For those who have not seen the original article, it is here.
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Dear Wendy,

I appreciate your editor passing along my letter to you, as well as your reply. Unfortunately, I failed to make my point adequately. I certainly expect a WSJ contributor to have a working knowledge of the industry you are covering so am not surprised you have covered issues about this in the past. Unfortunately, this article fails to offer that same balance of knowledge to your readers. My critical look at this article is about what the reader fails to learn, rather than what you may or may not know. A brief mention of the facts about the absence of regulation in the ‘natural’ market sector and a line about this particular company’s track record was needed, given your assertion that Scotts is somehow doing something extraordinary through expanding their marketing into a realm that has a name with no meaning attached to it. The pursuit of profit is not new nor extraordinary. It is a positive step taken by all businesses for their expansion. Whether or not it is a positive step within a marketplace which respects the consumer as a partner in capitalism, is another issue entirely.

Reading some of your other writings on this subject, you refer to pyrethrum as a natural insecticide. In fact, have you ever seen a product which only incorporates pyrethrum? A synergist called piperonyl butoxide has been added to those formulations which render them highly toxic. Pyrethroids are synthesized versions of pyrethrum with a similar ‘punch’ through the addition of synergists, other pesticides (combinations are common) and even the delivery solvent which is toxic in itself. There is nothing natural about these products other than the urge for deception in the marketplace.

Pyrethroids caused brain damage in many who served in the Gulf War of 1990. Landmark studies by Robert Haley and Mohammed Abou-Donia showed the effects of combinatorial exposures to pyrethroid insecticides with DEET and other chemicals. The results can be disastrous. The misapplication of the term ‘natural’ to marketed poisons may cause disability and death to some people. We know these pesticides have already invaded our waterways despite being the solution to presumably more toxic organophosphates.

Banned in recent decades as too toxic for casual use, former vendors like Scotts also defended those as terrific products. Industry never admitted their hazardous natures, content to protest the withdrawal from the marketplace as a political issue. Add in some more slander about Rachel Carson and you have a terrific denial of reality. In case you haven’t looked at the history of pesticide regulation, DDT was only banned because mosquitoes had, by and large, become resistant to it. No environmentalist ever had that much clout!

You described your ‘demo’ experience with the sprayer as an advance over existing technology. Do you actually know this to be a good choice of equipment for applying poisons? Do you actually have knowledge of the chemical you applied, its persistence, degree of potential drift via that appliance or efficacy in comparison with wettable powders which might not travel as far as a sprayed liquid?

Lastly, completing a piece about ‘weeds’ with a comment about knocking out fire ants seemed to be a complete non-sequitur. It compares the very real hazard presented by fire ants with dandelion control. If one is safe enough to do around grandma, why not the other? In fact, the use of pesticides to fight fire ants may be a good idea but not if done with a sprayer or with many available chemicals. Perhaps alcohol might work as well or CO2 gas. Pests can be killed via many strategies which do not require lasting damage to the environment and the user.

Every lawn is surrounded by people who have no say concerning their forced exposure to chemicals applied by its owner. Second hand smoke is outlawed because it causes cardiovascular and pulmonary damage to unintended consumers. Pesticide drift is not regulated despite being carcinogenic, neurotoxic, disruptive of reproductive and developmental health, endocrine systems, an irritant and sensitizer and a persistent pollutant of ground water. The list is much longer but I will spare you the rest. Until the consumer has a passing understanding of pesticide drift, persistence and the contamination of indoor environments, they can never weigh the importance of their goals in applying them. Having a golf course quality lawn does not compete with guarding their property against termites or fire ants.

I am basically objecting to the absence of risk/benefit discussions from such articles. Business entails risk and good economic policies ought to be directed towards helping business people minimize risk. It should not simply transfer risk from the vendor to the consumer because we all ultimately pay for the results. One in six children is now developmentally impaired in some measure; nearly a third of adults between 16 and 60 have health problems. It is time for industry to realize the connection between falling productivity and rising health care costs. They share the same underpinnings and a lot has to do with industry’s stocked shelves of toxic products. If a consumer is going to select a ‘natural’ alternative to a product they deem undesirable, we need to be clear on if it is actually an alternative at all.

Ask vendors whether or not their natural products will adhere to public perceptions of that label (‘natural’) or just legal standards for such adjectives.

Barbara Rubin

Categories: Letters

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