Thursday, December 8, 2016

Circle of Poison (Or How Not To Do Globalization) - Meet the New EPA Chief in Waiting, Scott Pruitt

The new documentary Circle of Poison is a shocking film.

It was especially chilling to see the film the Hollywood Reporter calls "a straightforward indictment of longstanding ecological injustice," on the very day when Donald Trump announced that Scott Pruitt would be the new head of the EPA.

Many denounced the appointment on the grounds that Pruitt (attorney general in Oklahoma) is a sworn climate change denier who has sued the EPA five times (and lost) over regulations - rules that he will now be in charge of making.

While his main interest is likely to be rolling back rules that affect the fossil fuel industry, the major concern of Oklahoma's power elite, he will also be in charge of clean air standards, pollution levels, and pesticides. Congress has given the EPA a relatively free hand to determine these regulations, determining broad policy and letting the EPA - and its in house expert scientists - handle the details.

As Jay Michaelson (who formerly worked at Yale Law School's environmental law center) points out in his article about Pruitt in today's Daily Beast, Pruitt could, "change standards for pesticides, raising amounts of pesticides deemed acceptable for agriculture, various chemicals from regulations under toxic substances control statutes" and more.

The New York Times editorial today, "An Enemy of the EPA to Head It," came out strongly against Pruitt, calling his nomination "an aggressively bad choice," and urging the Senate to "send his nomination to the dustbin."

Meanwhile, in a pointed comment, the New Yorker's satirical Horowitz Report ran a story saying Trump picked El Chapo (the famous Mexican drug lord) to run the DEA. That's Pruitt and the EPA.

But Pruitt and what will happen if he's overseeing pesticides is a story about the future. (At least he's from an oil producing state and not a major pesticide producing state).

Today the topic is the Circle of Poison, a story that has deep roots in the past, but somehow still persists.

What's shocking about this film is that it's not a new story.

The book the film is based on, Circle of Poison (you can read it online here), came out in 1980. In it, environmental reporters David Weir and Mark Schapiro documented how agrochemicals banned in the U.S. - for being too toxic - were approved for export to their world countries where they caused the innocent deaths of hundreds if not thousands of infants, children and adults. Food grown using these toxic chemicals was then imported into the U.S. where Americans purchased and ate them.

Fewer than 2 percent of all imported food is tested in the U.S., so critics have raised concerns about whether or not these chemicals were widely consumed in America.

But the bigger question remains - why were these toxic chemicals allowed to be manufactured and exported? And why are they still?

When he was in office, former president Jimmy Carter signed an executive order banning this practice, an order that was immediately reversed by the incoming Reagan administration.

Carter is in this documentary, recounting that order and his moral concerns about the continuation of this policy, one that is still practiced - 36 years after this was brought to light by muckrakers.

The film also takes viewers to India, Mexico and Argentina, showing us the victims of exposure to these chemicals. The sight of their suffering is unbelievable. You cannot understand how the U.S. is knowingly responsible for this - even under progressive, liberal administrations.

The companies who make these toxic chemicals sold in the developing world are Monsanto, Dow, Bayer, Syngenta, Du Pont and BASF (the same companies that make most of the pesticides used by the wine industry). The film mentions only endosulfan by name (not used in the U.S.), but it appears other toxics were sold as well.

The film's good news is that these third third world communities now recognize the dangers of toxic chemical farming and are reversing course, going back to organic farming.

Bhutan is also a shining example of a country that embraced organic farming nationwide. As one official in Bhutan, a mountainous kingdom, says, the country has so little agricultural land that it can't afford to lose production on any portion of it (that might be the result of chemical farming).

As I was leaving the theater, an elderly woman who volunteers at The Lark spoke to me. "I just can't believe this is still going on, " she said. "You'd think this would be a case they would take up in the World Court or something."

You can see the film online on Amazon Video, iTunes, Google Play and Vudu. Al Jazeera wrote a good synopsis of the movie which you can read here.

The filmmakers also participated in a panel at the Environmental Film Festival in DC, a video which has been posted on YouTube. You can see it here.

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