21. EDB -- ETHYLENE DIBROMIDE -- THE SUPER CARCINOGEN

EDB was introduced to the public last year. And how did the media handle the story? Suddenly, the public was told to check numbers on boxes of muffin mixes and jars of baby foods because these products were contaminated with EDB. The result was a momentary sensationalized hysteria around certain food products but the background and full scope of EDB was not conveyed to the public.

EDB is described by Environmental Protection Agency scientists as the most powerful cancer-causing chemical the agency has tested. According to government and industry officials, EDB has so pervaded the nation's food supply that banning the substance tomorrow would not eliminate it from America's diet for years. EDB has been used widely for more than two decades as a soil treatment and post-harvest fumigant for fruits, vegetables, and grains.

The Florida recall of grain products last year focused new attention on EDB which the EPA had been attempting to curb for over six years. It also raised questions ability to protect the public from a chemical that could, by the EPA's estimate, result in three cancer deaths for every 1,000 persons exposed to it for a lifetime. This could mean 750,000 cancer deaths from EDB by the middle of the next century.

Large amounts of the nation's 7-billion-bushel grain stockpile already have been treated with the chemical -- estimates range as high as 50 percent. If the EPA immediately banned all uses of EDB, it could take four years or more for the contaminated wheat, corn, oats, rice, barley, rye, and sorghum to work their way through the system.

Concern about economic disruption has kept EDB in use even after a 1974 National Cancer Institute study identified it as a carcinogen. Citrus growers and grain millers like EDB because it's inexpensive, effective, and convenient. But tests done by the cancer institute show that EDB is an extraordinarily powerful cancer-causing agent; other tests show it could cause birth defects and reproductive disorders.

In 1977, the EPA announced it was mustering the evidence necessary to ban the substances. Six years later, the agency has managed to halt only one use of EDB -- as a soil fumigant. It took that action last October, citing widespread contamination of drinking water due to leaching through the soil. But hundreds of millions of pounds of EDB already have been injected into the soil and millions more have been used in commercial and farm storage bins of grain.

Considering the national concern with carcinogens, one has to wonder where the media were in 1974 when the National Cancer Institute labeled EDB a carcinogen or in 1977 when the EPA admitted it was gathering evidence to ban the product. Even now, the scope of the story seems to go far beyond some muffin mixes and baby food.

SOURCE:

THE WASHINGTON POST NATIONAL WEEKLY EDITION, 1/9/84, "Weighing a Ban on EDB, The Super Carcinogen," by Cass Peterson.