WHEN it comes to peddling questionable products abroad, official ethics seem to be highly situational. The United States government opposes the export of chemicals used to manufacture illegal drugs like cocaine, as well as the marketing of substances that could be turned into chemical weapons. We are quite willing to "just say no" to obvious bad guys like the Medellin cartel and Saddam Hussein. But when it comes to other highly lucrative but suspect items headed for the villages and cities of the third world - some of which may not be sold in the US because they're untested or even proven to be unsafe -
Uncle Sam opts for profit over principle.
The most obvious example is tobacco. It was years ago that smoking was officially declared bad news and cigarette ads were booted off American TV. With the number of American smokers dropping steadily, tobacco companies headed abroad (especially to Asia). That's their right, of course, but they got a lot of help from the same government that was telling Americans not to smoke. This included trade pressure against countries resisting the tobacco companies' aggressive marketing efforts.
More insidious has been the sale abroad of pesticides and medical drugs that may not be sold in this country. Unlike tobacco, these products at least were designed to do some good, but the result has been otherwise. A recent three-part investigative series by Christopher Scanlan of the Knight-Ridder News Service concluded that "American companies, including some of the largest and most respected, are profiting from the overseas sales of dangerous products that threaten the health and safety of millions o
f people in the world's most vulnerable nations."
During a three-month period last year, for example, US chemical firms exported nearly 4 million pounds of pesticides that are banned or have been withdrawn from the domestic market. According to the World Health Organization, pesticides cost an estimated 220,000 lives every year, and millions more are made sick or disabled.
Part of the problem, writes Scanlan, is that "third world countries lack the consumer advocates and aggressive news media that alert Americans to dangerous products. Often illiterate victims don't know who - or what - to blame."
With pesticides, the irony is that food contaminated with such substances finds its way back to the American dinner table. One-quarter of the fruit and vegetables consumed in the US comes from abroad (one-half during the winter). "In the past two years," reports the Senate agriculture committee, "federal inspectors have found US-banned pesticides in beef from Honduras, pineapples from the Philippines, and beans and carrots from Latin America." The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has found illegal pes t
icides on 5 percent of imported food, which is twice the rate on domestically grown produce. And the number may be higher, since the FDA samples no more than 2 percent of all food imports. Critics call this the "circle of poison."
It's hard not to see this as a Democrat versus Republican issue. It was during the Reagan administration that the big push to hook young smokers abroad began. One of Reagan's first acts as president was to cancel Jimmy Carter's executive order regulating the export of pesticides and medical drugs. With his experience as an ambassador overseas and at the United Nations, one might think George Bush would be more sensitive to the well-being of developing countries. But his administration has sided with the
chemical industry in opposing legislation that would curb the export of questionable pesticides.
That congressional proposal - dubbed the "Circle of Poison Prevention Act bans the sale abroad of pesticides that may not be used in the United States or be present on food consumed in the US. It also requires clear pesticide labeling in the language of the country where sold, and it directs the Environmental Protection Agency to convene meetings to develop international pesticide controls.
Says Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont, chairman of the agriculture committee: "At a time when we are toughening standards at home, it makes no sense to allow American companies to use a loophole in current law to dump unsafe pesticides abroad - only to have these chemicals show up in imported foods in America's supermarkets."
It's hard to argue with that.