International Consumer Protection

Even though many are household words, the activities of the large multinational corporations are only vaguely known to most people. Even less known are the impacts on the daily lives of Americans from these global firms. Sure, everybody knows that Dupont sells chemicals and General Electric sells light bulbs, because their ads tell us these facts incessantly. What they do not tell us is what they would prefer us not finding out.
An increasing number of citizen groups are discovering sore serious boomerangs. Our goverment allows chemical companies to export pesticides to foreign lands which are not permitted to be sold in the U.S. due to their dangers. These pesticides are used on coffee, banana and other fruit and vegetable plantations. Then these foodstuffs are exported to the U.S. and find their way, with residues, to your breakfast or dinner table. The Institute for Food and Development calls this the “Circle of Poison.”

That is not all. Before these pesticides leave our ports to go abroad, workers are exposed who manufacture, load and unload the chemicals, including those unfortunates who have to clean up any toxic spills.

On the Mexican side of the border, U.S. firms are dumping deadly toxics in the New River which flows north into Imperial County, CaliĀ­fornia and finally into the Salton Sea where people fish and swim. Phil Gruenberg, a staff biologist with the California Regional Water Quality Control Board calls this river sewer “the most polluted water in CaliĀ­fornia, and perhaps in the United States.”

The California Public Health Department has isolated 28 viruses in this river, including all three strains of polio. The New River is responsible for the largest outbreak of typhoid in California in half a century.

Little is being done for such reentry of these health hazards. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is supposed to protect the public by monitoring imported foods for illegal pesticide residues. The Congressional General Accounting Office found in 1986 that the FDA is doing a tiny sampling job and not even promptly collecting most of the few fines levied.

Of course the flow goes the other way also. U.S. companies are responsible for a majority of Canada’s acid rain problems. Deadly wastes are shipped abroad for storage in impoverished countries seeking foreign exchange or just dumped into the oceans. Drug companies are now selling pharmaceuticals to other countries which have not been approved by the FDA, pursuant to a law lobbied through Congress last year.

Esther Peterson, consumer adviser to Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter, has been pursuing a valiant effort to secure United Nation’s approval of a UN Transnational Code of Conduct which would promote compliance with international health, safety and quality standards and greater disclosure of ingredients. She was instrumental in getting the UN to pass two years ago “Guidelines for Consumer Protection” which, unfortunately, the Reagan Administration opposed after failing to defeat them entirely.

The International Organization of Consumers Unions, based in The Hague, Netherlands (letters will reach them through Consumers Union, Mount Vernon, New York), is working to enlarge international consumer protection initiatives. Unfortunately, since 1981, the Reagan government has opposed extending existing principles of consumer protection in the U.S. to consumers in the Third World even as advisories without any enforcement effect.

Failing to export what this country can be proud of to other lands to uplift the standards and build the morale of consumer advocates there surely has to be a shame on Washington.

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