When you bite into a piece of fruit, it should be a mindless pleasure. Sure, that steroidal-looking strawberry with a toothpaste-white interior doesn’t seem right to begin with. But you shouldn’t have to think about childhood brain development when layering it over your cereal.
The Trump administration, in putting chemical industry toadies between our food and public safety, has forced a fresh appraisal of breakfast and other routines that are not supposed to be frightful.
One of the first things this administration did was rescind a government proposal to ban a pesticide used on much of the fresh food we eat – a chemical compound, chlorpyrifos, found to be harmful to the brain and nervous system of children.
This move didn’t get a lot of attention. But when you’re throwing out a half-dozen major lies and missteps a day, it’s tough to compete for airtime.
I can hear my friends in the apple orchards of Eastern Washington saying a little whiff of chlorpyrifos isn’t going to hurt anybody. Of course, they would never spray it around their children, and certainly not pregnant women.
Tomato farmers stopped applying chlorpyrifos 17 years ago, and most citrus growers did the same, though it is still widely used on everything from brussels sprouts to berries. In 2015, alarmed by new studies linking chlorpyrifos to lower IQ in children, the government moved to ban it altogether.
The election changed everything. In came a gang that sees all this hyperventilating about poisons in our food, toxins in our water and carbon in our air as alarmist whining. From here on out, public health would take a back seat to Dow Chemical.
And so Donald Trump brought in Scott Pruitt from Oklahoma to dismantle nearly everything the Environmental Protection Agency does to make life safer. His mission is to destroy the agency he now leads.
Does Trump want to make American children a little dumber, a little more vulnerable to cancer, especially those in the regions that voted for him? No, of course not. But by being reflexively hostile to science that points out the hazards around us, he’s doing just that.
This betrayal of public health won’t affect many of the people who didn’t vote for Trump: hipsters, urbanites, blue-state foodies. They can shop at Whole Foods, or the farmers’ markets, paying a premium for fruits and vegetables that weren’t sprayed with a chemical that has been shown to slow brain development in children.
No, a green light for poisons will hit those living at the margins, people without the time or money to investigate where their food comes from. Government is supposed to look out for those folks. But Trump, with his absurd edict to eliminate two regulations for every new one proposed, is making things more dangerous for them.
His administration is also giving asbestos a second look. This carcinogen is banned by 58 nations and linked to the cancer deaths of nearly 63,000 Americans between 1999 and 2014. That’s a stadium full of fellow citizens. The Obama administration moved to ban asbestos. But Scott Pruitt, in his written testimony to the Senate, indicated he wasn’t ready to follow suit.
Clean water is another Trump target. With his proposal to gut the EPA, Trump would make it much more difficult for the Great Lakes to be great again. His budget would eliminate restoration projects in the iconic waterways of America, from Chesapeake Bay to Puget Sound. Plus, he would decrease grants to monitor unsafe tap water, creating future Flints.
He also wants to cut research into harmful chemicals – some linked to breast cancer and birth defects – found in things most Americans keep in their cupboards. The tobacco companies must sense a comeback in the offing.
Certainly there are mindless regulations on the books. And every recent administration, going back to Al Gore’s reinvent-government initiative, has looked at ways to pare back the regressive and redundant ones.
But what Trump is doing is a wholesale reordering of society to get rid of consumer and health protections. There’s a reason to constantly vet workplace toxins when chemical exposure kills about 50,000 American workers a year, or another stadium full of citizens.
“We’re doing an amazing job on regulations,” Trump said last week. “We’ve freed it up. We’ve freed up this country so much.”
His “freeing” at the risk of the public is being done in the name of job creation. This is a crock. While President Barack Obama was moving to lessen exposure to life-killing chemicals, he posted 75 straight months of job growth – the longest streak on record – and cut the unemployment rate in half.
You can always argue about economic numbers. But think of that strawberry, which comes to your breakfast bowl after being exposed to seven pesticides, on average.
“Tell me what you eat,” goes the French saying, “and I will tell you what you are.” In the age of Trump, the poison in the food chain will explain much.
Timothy Egan is a New York Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author based in Seattle. He will speak at the University of Puget Sound commencement on May 14.