Circle of Poison Essay

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The “circle of poison” (COP) describes the linkage between an American-made pesticide that is banned in the United States, but which circles back into the food supply from a pesticide used in an underdeveloped country. The circle is complete when the pesticide returns via nature or by human actions. The pesticides in the circle of poison have carcinogenic or tetragenic properties (causing birth defects). Traces of banned, American-made pesticides have been found in the Florida Keys or in other locations, including the Great Lakes. Winds and ocean currents have delivered these traces. In other cases, the pesticide circle was completed through imports of foods.

The only pesticides allowed in the United States are those that are registered for use in the United States; however, export law does not prevent unregistered pesticides from being manufactured and exported. In the 1970s and 1980s, the United States began to ban the use of pesticides that were identified as environmentally destructive or identified as carcinogens. For example, the banning of DDT in the United States did not prevent its being exported to underdeveloped countries. The 1970s also saw the beginning of increased food imports to the United States. Countries in the southern hemisphere grew increasing quantities of crops that were exported to North America and Europe. Tomatoes from Mexico, fruits from Chile, and foods from underdeveloped countries increased in the food supplies of Americans, Canadians, and Europeans.

Proven instances of the circle of poison have been rare. In one case, residues of chlordane and heptachlor, which are made only in the United States, were found on beef imported into the United States. Since 1990, the United States Department of Agriculture has generally found that pesticide residues fall within acceptable limits. In 1991, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) examined over 10,000 samples of imported fruits and vegetables. The sampling found that in 64% of imported food, there was no traceable pesticide residue. Only four percent of the foods sampled were outside of the accepted limits. However, the FDA inspects only a small fraction of the foods imported into the United States. Most critics find the very limited inspections conducted by the FDA to be woefully inadequate.

Consumer advocacy groups have lobbied Congress for circle-of-poison legislation that would prevent the exporting of unregistered pesticides from the United States. Senator Patrick Leahy (Democrat-Vermont) and Representative Leon Panetta (Democrat-California) have repeatedly been unsuccessful in getting circle-of-poison legislation adopted. Opponents of the regulation of pesticides argue that banning them would hurt not only American manufacturers, but also people in the Third World. Pesticide use in many tropical countries has reduced malaria and allowed expanded agricultural production. Opponents believe that banning American-made unregistered pesticides will not break the circle of poison, as Third World countries will simply find new supply sources for fighting both diseasebearing insects and destructive pests. In 2006, Congress was still allowing the export of unregistered pesticides, while the number of cases of pesticide poisoning in foreign countries was increasing.


  1. Sean L. Swezey and Rainer Daxl, Breaking the Circle of Poison: The Integrated Pest Management Revolution in Nicaragua (Institute for Food and Development Policy, 1983);
  2. David Weir and Mark Schapiro, Circle of Poison: Pesticides and People in a Hungry World (Institute for Food and Development Policy, 1981).

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