If the U.S. got rid of pesticides, it could avoid (statistically) 20 cancer deaths per year, says Bjorn Lomborg. But, he asks, are the benefits worth the costs? And could that money be used more effectively in other ways?

“What we constantly hear is that pesticide use is out of control, that it's causing more cancer,” he told members of CropLife America and California Plant Health Association at their joint annual meeting at Palm Desert, Calif.

“In fact, cancer numbers in the U.S. have increased dramatically in the last half-century, since the publication of Rachel Carson's book, Silent Spring. On the surface, this would indicate things are seriously wrong, that we do have a cancer epidemic.”

But, says Lomborg, a political scientist/statistician and the author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, now in worldwide distribution, “That's only part of the story.”

The author, an associate professor at the University of Aarhus in Denmark, has been at the center of a firestorm debate over his assertions that the environment is improving rather than deteriorating and that Earth's citizens, as a whole, are living better, more healthy lives than ever before.

While cancer deaths have been rising sharply, he points out, U.S. population in the same half-century has risen 60 percent. “If you factor that into the equation, the cancer death rate is much less. Also, everyone is getting much older, so we're more likely to die from cancer than all the other diseases that killed us when we didn't live nearly so long.

Rate adjustments

“In 1900, most deaths were from infectious diseases. But we've triumphed over most of those, and we live longer and get more cancers and diseases of old age. If we adjust the numbers for age, there's been only a very, very slight increase in the cancer death rate over the 50 years. If we further adjust it for the increases in cancer deaths caused by smoking, there actually are fewer and fewer people dying from cancer compared to what we'd expect.”

And what of the role of pesticides in cancer deaths?

The biggest study ever done in the U.S. on what actually causes cancer, Lomborg says, noted that the effects of pesticides on cancer death rates “seems unimportant.” That contention has also essentially been confirmed by all subsequent major reports, including those by the National Academy of Sciences and the World Research Foundation.

“By far the biggest contributors to cancer deaths are diet and smoking,” he says. “Pollution causes only about 2 percent of all cancers, and those aren't from pesticides, but from air pollution — which is one of the things we can do something about.”

Scientists still don't know what causes most cancers in human beings, Lomborg says. “Most of our cancer findings are based on rodent studies, which show pesticides to be so far down the list as to be negligible. A lot of cancers come from naturally-occurring pesticides in what we eat and drink.”

In the landmark 1998 Ames/Gold study, he says, 19 of 25 common substances had natural carcinogens, including coffee, lettuce, orange juice, black pepper, mushrooms, apples, cinnamon, carrots, potatoes, and celery.

Relative risks

“So, we look at relative risk. The risk rate for alcohol, for someone who consumes the equivalent of two beers per day, for example, is 36 percent greater than for coffee. But the two most dangerous synthetic pesticides are about 18,000 times less likely to cause cancer than drinking two beers. If we take the risk of those pesticides all the way through the average American's life, it is the equivalent of a once-in-a-lifetime drinking of 13 beers.

“Is it reasonable that we make this infinitesimal risk a national concern when we're considering environmental legislation?”

Studies have shown, Lomborg says, that about 200,000 Americans die each year from diet-related cancers.

“By far, most of those are caused from consuming too many calories, too much fat. There are 1,959 people who die each year from the naturally-occurring carcinogens in spices; 800 die from drowning in their own bathtubs. About 20 people die each year from pesticides, virtually all from deliberately ingesting them.

“If we get rid of pesticides, we could eventually avoid 20 cancer deaths a year. But it will cost $20 billion to $100 billion a year because we'll have to plow up more land, we'll reduce crop yields, prices on all foods will increase — particularly for fruits and vegetables, which we're told are vital in our diets to help avoid cancer.

“Even more ironic,” Lomborg says, “it's estimated there would be an additional 26,000 cancer deaths per year as a result of less varied, less nutritious food. So, is it a good idea to eliminate all pesticides to avoid the 20 present cancer deaths, while spending up to $100 billion more per year and causing another 25,594 cancer deaths?

Needed questions

“These are the kinds of questions we need to ask: Where can we do the most good with our money? What should be our priorities. What are the most important things we can do for our future? What is the cost of our worry? If we over-worry about some things, such as pesticides, we risk under-worrying about others that may be far more important.”

Referring to the largest study ever conducted on the costs of saving human lives, done by the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis and comprising thousands of pages of research, Lomborg says the following costs were determined for saving one human life for one year:

  • In the general population, $19,000.
  • In the residential sector, $36,000.
  • In the transportation sector, $56,000.
  • In the workplace, $350,000.
  • In the environmental sector, $4.2 million.

“Can you spot the bad investment? We have to ask ourselves if we're willing to spend $4.2 million to save one life in the environmental arena, when the same amount of money, spent optimally, could save hundreds of lives elsewhere. Are the lives of those hundreds so unimportant that we will spend $4.2 million to save just one life?

“It's nuts not to make some sort of prioritization, and that is the challenge to our future. It's true, we still have many problems, but they are becoming fewer and smaller. We need to make sure we get the best possible results from what we do so we can make an even better future for our children and grandchildren.”

e-mail: hbrandon@primediabusiness.com