ENVIRONMENTALISTS call it "dumping" - when pesticide manufacturers sell their products overseas after their use has been banned or restricted in the United States. Dow Chemical Company and Shell Oil Company dispute the charges, but lawyers say dumping of the chemical DBCP in the late 1970s led to cases of sterility among workers in Costa Rica. Late last month Congress began to consider legislation that would stop "US chemical companies from dumping pesticides overseas that [the US Environmental Protection Agency] considers unsafe," according to a statement by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont, the bill's chief Senate sponsor.
Because the government "waives through virtually all imported food without inspection," says the statement, "these chemicals often end up on America's dinner table. This is the 'Circle of Poison.' "
The Circle of Poison Prevention Act would stop the overseas sale of pesticides that aren't "registered" by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and pesticides that the EPA says can't appear on food sold domestically.
The bill's supporters say it will increase the safety of imported food, stop overseas farmers from using pesticides that US farmers can't use, and prevent farm workers overseas from being exposed to potentially dangerous chemicals.
But Adele Logan, spokeswoman for the National Agricultural Chemicals Association, says lack of registration doesn't necessarily mean a product is unsafe; in some cases there's no market for a pesticide in the US, so the manufacturer doesn't seek EPA registration.
She also says that the safety of imported food would be better ensured by more effective border inspection, and that overseas farmers will turn to other suppliers for pesticides they can't buy from US makers. She says the industry actively promotes "environmental stewardship" programs that protect workers abroad.
Although DBCP has been out of production in the US for more than a decade, allegations about its effects in Costa Rica provide "a graphic illustration of the devastation caused by US chemicals dumped overseas," says the statement released by Senator Leahy's office.
But the bill emphasizes the danger posed to US consumers. Five percent of the imported food the Food and Drug Administration samples is contaminated with illegal pesticides, double the rate for domestic food, according to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry. And the FDA samples only 1 to 2 percent of imports.
Legislation similar to the Circle of Poison act was introduced last year as part of the 1990 farm bill, but the White House and Congress couldn't agree on export controls for pesticides.