In the poverty-stricken countryside of Guatemala, mothers' milk is contaminated with DDT. Much of the pesticide comes from the United States, which each year exports millions of pounds of chemicals banned from domestic use because they are too hazardous.
In 1978, the Consumer Product Safety Commission banned pacifiers that could cause infants to choke to death. Last year, Reliance Products of Rhode Island exported to Australia 120,000 pacifiers that did not meet U.S. regulations.
The export of hazardous products and industries is becoming a major controversy here and abroad. While many Third World nations are willing customers, others complain of being used as dumping grounds by U.S. companies.
"The export trade in death in flourishing as never before," says Herman Rebhan, head of the 14-million-member International Metalworkers Federation. Rep. George Miller (D.-Calif.) accuses the United States of "environmental imperialism."
Now the White House is considering an executive order imposing more stringent controls over a wide variety of dangerous products. In some instances, it would require written approval of foreign governments before the first shipment. In the case of severe hazards, an export ban could be imposed.
The proposal, in its fourth draft after a year of interagency conflict, raises delicate issues of foreign policy. The State Department, which in the past argued that the United States should not interfere in human rights abroad, has reisted passing judgment on the environmental decisions of other nations.
"Perhaps we have an ethical responsibility not to dump on unsuspecting nations products that we won't use here," said Edward Cohen of the White House consumer affairs office. "On the other hand, we can't be the world's nanny."
Last year, however, President Carter set an important precedent with an executive order requiring environmental assessments for federal actions that could cause major pollution abroad.
The move to limit the export of pollution and hazardous products to under-developed countries comes at a time when many Third World nations are questioning the time-honored goal of unfettered industrialization.
The president of Sierra Leone this month rejected an offer of $25 million from a Colorado firm wanting to export toxic wastes from U.S. factories. Mexico recently shut down several DBCP factories; production of the pesticide had moved south of the border after it was found to cause sterility in workers.
"It will not be long before the people of the Third World revolt against being treated as the garbage can of the advanced industrial world," said Rebhan at a recent New York conference on the export of hazardous industry.
There are economic reasons for controlling sales of unsafe products abroad. If these sales are not controlled, Cohen says, they will "undermine foreign confidence in American products. The label 'Made in U.S.A.' could become feared, rather than respected."
American industry, however, is wary.
"It used to be you could ship to Zamabia and no one would know anything about it except the shipper and the receiver," says J. William Haun, vice president of General Mills Inc. "Now we're faced with a government that wants to know about everything that leaves its shores. That could tie up world trade in an endless red tape of paperwork."
Businessmen argue that what the United States won't export, West Germany and other countries will. This is the same problem that the United States faces in trying to curb nuclear proliferation.
However, the sale of pesticides to developing countries -- 40 percent of the $2.6 billion a year in U.S. production of these chemicals is for export markets -- has had a boomerang effect. Nerve-damaging kepone, for example, manufactured in Virginia for export only, was sprayed on Guatemalan bananas destined for U.S. consumption.
Aldrin, dieldrin, hhptachlor, and chlordane -- banned here but made for export -- come back to this country on cacao from Ecuador, coffee from Costa Rica, sugar and tea from India.
"A large portion of food imported into the United States may in fact contain unsafe pesticide residues," the General Accounting Office concluded last year. "In some foreign countries pesticides known or suspected of causing cancer, birth defects and gene mutations are carelessly or excessively used."
There is no proof that these residues actually have hurt American consumers, but among pesticide factory workers here and farmers and peasants abroard the suffering has been acute. The World Health Organization estimates that 500,000 persons are poisoned by pesticides each year, and 5,000 die from it. But an accurate count is difficult, because the effects of exposure often are cancers that appear 10 or 20 years later.
Leptophos (Phosvel), which was manufactured here for export by Velsicol Chemical Corp., caused the deaths of sveral Egyptian farmers and severe convulsions and speech impairments in others. American workers became partly paralyzed from exposure, and traces of the nerve-attacking pesticide were found on tomatoes here imported from Mexico.
Even pesticides approved for use here can be dangerous when exported and used by illiterate farmhands. In 1976, at least five Pakistanis died and 2,900 became ill from the common pesticide malathion. Sprayers had mixed it with their bare hands, washed the spraying equipment in local water supplies and spilled the pesticide -- which can be absorbed through the skin -- in areas where barefoot children played.
Regulations in developing countries "are not good enough," says Humberto Romero Alvarex, Mexico's under secretary for environmental improvement. "And the companies sell presticides in an indiscriminate way -- they recommend it for everything. Agriculture abuses, rather than uses it."
However, Romero adds: "Poor countries depend on pesticides for survival. You cannot get good results in tropical agriculture without pesticides." Thanks to DDT, he said, Mexico has almost entirely eradicated malaria-bearing mosquitoes.
But evidence is growing that the reliance on chemicals is backfiring. The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization lists 364 agricultural insects that have become resistant to important pesticides. Strains of "superpests" have emerged, requiring ever-deadlier chemicals to eradicate. Mosquitoes have become resistant to DDT and other insecticides in 62 countries.
In their "State of the World Environment" report last year, U.N. officials told of the small village of Comarapa in sub-tropical Bolivia. Persuaded by "an avalanche of salesmen," farmers there began to use pesticides on their tomato crops in 1965. They abandoned centuries-old methods of rotating crops and changing irrigation sequences.
After three years, a strange new moth appeared, reproducing itself at a terrifying rate. The salesmen recommended more pesticides: methyl parathion, benzene hexachloride. New strains of resistant moths appeared and emigrated to other parts of the country.
Some of the peasants have reverted to the old methods; others have given up hope. The suicide rate has increased dramatically in the village, the United Nations reported.
Anisar Aguilar, one of the farmers, was quoted as saying: "They think they are the killers of "Pachama' -- Mother Earth. Now they are committing suicide . . . by drinking the pesticides that caused all their problems."
The marketing of drugs, birth control devices and infant formulas abroad also has been the subject of widespread protest in Third World countries. The Upjohn Co., forbidden to sell Depo-Provera, an injectable birth control drug, in the United States, now exports it from a Belgian subsidiary. The Food and Drug Administration banned Depo-Provera because it is suspected of causing cancer and birth defects.
While some countries, including Ghana, have said they are willing to assume the risk of cancer because of their population explosions, others are worried. Dr. Zafrullah Chowdhury, who runs a rural clinic in Bangladesh, found that Depo-Provera supresses lactation -- a serious problem in a country where children's main nutrition is mothers' milk.
Drugs often are misleadingly advertised and promoted by unscrupulous salesmen, critics charge. For example, Winstrol, a synthetic male hormone that was found to stunt the growth of children, reportedly was sold in Brazil as an appetite stimulant for children.
Chowdhury said he is especially outraged at the number of useless drugs being sold at high prices, and at the fact that infant formula is being promoted by Western companies as a substitute for more nourishing breast milk. p
"People have to be aware of how helpless we are," he said.
The executive order under consideration at the White House would not affect overseas operations of U.S. subsidiaries but would impose more uniformity on exports of dangerous producjts. At present, untested pesticides can be exported, but new untested rugs can't. Red Dye No. 2 and cyclamates, both suspected carinogens, can be sold abroad, while banned consumer products require permission from the importing nation.
Under the new policy, companies would be required to report all hazardous exports to responsible government agencies.
Meanwhile, pesticide use is expected to more than double in developing countries by 1984, and exports of other hazardous products are likely to increase.
"If the United States does not exercise special vigilance over (such) exports . . . citizens and governments of foreign countries may develop increasingly hostile attitudes toward this country and its products," the draft White House report warned.