Consumer Safety Sometimes Isn't So Safe

It turns out the mysterious decline of bee populations in the U.S. and elsewhere might not be all that mysterious after all. Pesticides produced by a unit of Germany's Bayer may be directly or indirectly contributing.

The collapse of 30% to 90% of some bee populations over the past few years is a problem to buzz about. Billions of dollars in U.S. food, including nuts, berries, fruits and vegetables, come from plants that rely on bees to pollinate them, according to the USDA. And there will be less honey to go around as the bees that make it disappear.

Whether or not Bayer was in the wrong, this unfolding story serves as a reminder to consumers. It's up to each of us to err on the side of caution and minimize our exposure to chemicals -- even those that have been declared "safe." Sometimes only time can tell us what's good for humans and the environment.

Germany recently banned several of Bayer's nicotine-based insecticides, following a move that France made several years ago.

The chemicals in questions are used to cover seeds before they're sown and work their way through the plant's system. As a result, bees might ingest them through the pollen they pick up. Some researchers say this pesticide is harming bees' nervous system, making them more vulnerable to diseases and pests.

It's not hard to believe that something meant to harm pests might also harm other small critters as well.

Here in the U.S., the Sierra Club has called on the EPA to declare a moratorium on these pesticides. Meanwhile, the National Resources Defense Council is suing the EPA because it believes the agency is hiding evidence that would link Bayer's products to the dying bees and undermine the agency's own approval of those products.

The NRDC explains in a press release: "In 2003, EPA granted a registration to a new pesticide manufactured by Bayer CropScience under the condition that Bayer submit studies about its product's impact on bees. EPA has refused to disclose the results of these studies, or if the studies have even been submitted."

Bayer responded in June, saying: "All studies available to us confirm that our product is safe to bees if the recommended dressing quality is maintained. When used correctly ... this crop-protection product is safe for operators, consumers and the environment."

It's important to keep this brouhaha in mind as companies like Monsanto ( MON) say it's OK if our milk comes from cows injected with synthetic hormones. Or as the American Chemistry Council tells us the FDA thinks it's OK for BPA to leach from plastic into our children's food even if other agencies aren't so sure.

And keep in mind this Christmas that Congress' ban on phthalates and lead in toys passed last month takes effect in 2009.

Caveat emptor.

Eileen P. Gunn writes about the business of life and is the author of "Your Career Is An Extreme Sport." You can learn more about her at her Web site.

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