Chemicals on Our Food: When “Safe” May Not Really Be Safe

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Scientific scrutiny of pesticide residue in food grows; regulatory protections questioned

This article was originally published in Environmental Health News.

By Carey Gillam

Weed killers in wheat crackers and cereals, insecticides in apple juice and a mix of multiple pesticides in spinach, string beans and other veggies – all are part of the daily diets of many Americans. For decades, federal officials have declared tiny traces of these contaminants to be safe. But a new wave of scientific scrutiny is challenging those assertions.

Though many consumers might not be aware of it, every year, government scientists document how hundreds of chemicals used by farmers on their fields and crops leave residues in widely consumed foods. More than 75 percent of fruits and more than 50 percent of vegetables sampled carried pesticides residues in the latest sampling reported by the Food and Drug Administration. Even residues of the tightly restricted bug-killing chemical DDT are found in food, along with a range of other pesticides known by scientists to be linked to a range of illnesses and disease. The pesticide endosulfan, banned worldwide because of evidence that it can cause neurological and reproductive problems, was also found in food samples, the FDA report said.

U.S. regulators and the companies that sell the chemicals to farmers insist that the pesticide residues pose no threat to human health. Most residue levels found in food fall within legal “tolerance” levels set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), regulators say.

“Americans depend on the FDA to ensure the safety of their families and the foods they eat,” FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a press release accompanying the agency’s Oct. 1 release of its residue report. “Like other recent reports, the results show that overall levels of pesticide chemical residues are below the Environmental Protection Agency’s tolerances, and therefore don’t pose a risk to consumers.”

The EPA is so confident that traces of pesticides in food are safe that the agency has granted multiple chemical company requests for increases in the allowed tolerances, effectively providing a legal basis for higher levels of pesticide residues to be allowed in American food.

But recent scientific studies have prompted many scientists to warn that years of promises of safety may be wrong. While no one is expected to drop dead from eating a bowl of cereal containing pesticide residues, repeated low level exposures to trace amounts of pesticides in the diet could be contributing to a range of health problems, particularly for children, scientists say.

“There are probably many other health effects; we just haven’t studied them”

A team of Harvard scientists published a commentary in October stating that more research about potential links between disease and consumption of pesticide residues is “urgently needed” as more than 90 percent of the U.S. population has pesticide residues in their urine and blood. The primary route of exposure to these pesticides is through the food people eat, the Harvard research team said.

Several additional Harvard-affiliated scientists published a study earlier this year of women who were trying to get pregnant. The findings suggested that dietary pesticide exposure within a “typical” range was associated both with problems women had getting pregnant and delivering live babies, the scientists said.

“Clearly the current tolerance levels protect us from acute toxicity. The problem is that it is not clear to what extent long-term low-level exposure to pesticide residues through food may or may not be health hazards,” said Dr. Jorge Chavarro, associate professor of the Departments of Nutrition and Epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and one of the study authors.

“Exposure to pesticide residues through diet is associated [with] some reproductive outcomes including semen quality and greater risk of pregnancy loss among women undergoing infertility treatments. There are probably many other health effects; we just haven’t studied them sufficiently to make an adequate risk assessment,” Chavarro said.

Toxicologist Linda Birnbaum, who directs the U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), has also raised concerns about pesticide dangers through exposures once assumed to be safe. Last year she called for “an overall reduction in the use of agricultural pesticides” due to multiple concerns for human health, stating that “existing US regulations have not kept pace with scientific advances showing that widely used chemicals cause serious health problems at levels previously assumed to be safe.”

In an interview Birnbaum said that pesticide residues in food and water are among the types of exposures that need greater regulatory scrutiny.

“Do I think that levels that are currently set are safe? Probably not,” said Birnbaum. “We have people of different susceptibility, whether because of their own genetics, or their age, whatever may make them more susceptible to these things,” she said.

“While we look at chemicals one at a time, there is a lot of evidence for things acting in a synergistic fashion. A lot of our standard testing protocols, many that were developed 40 to 50 years ago, are not asking the questions we should be asking,” she added.

Legal doesn’t mean safe

Other recent scientific papers also point to troubling findings. One by a group of international scientists published in May found glyphosate herbicide at doses currently considered “safe” are capable of causing health problems before the onset of puberty. More research is needed to understand potential risks to children, the study authors said.

And in a paper published Oct. 22 in JAMA Internal Medicine, French researchers said that when looking at pesticide residue links to cancer in a study of the diets of more than 68,000 people, they found indications that consumption of organic foods, which are less likely to carry synthetic pesticide residues than foods made with conventionally grown crops, was associated with a reduced risk of cancer.

A 2009 paper published by a Harvard researcher and two FDA scientists found 19 out of 100 food samples that children commonly consumed contained at least one insecticide known to be a neurotoxin. The foods the researchers looked at were fresh vegetables, fruits and juices. Since then, evidence has grown about the harmful human health impacts of insecticides, in particular.

Unacceptable levels

“A number of current legal standards for pesticides in food and water do not fully protect public health, and do not reflect the latest science,” said Olga Naidenko, senior science advisor to the non-profit Environmental Working Group, which has issued several reports looking at potential dangers of pesticides in food and water. “Legal does not necessarily reflect “safe,” she said.

One example of how regulatory assurances of safety have been found lacking when it comes to pesticide residues is the case of an insecticide known as chlorpyrifos. Marketed by Dow Chemical, which became the DowDuPont company in 2017, chlorpyrifos is applied to more than 30 percent of apples, asparagus, walnuts, onions, grapes, broccoli, cherries and cauliflower grown in the U.S. and is commonly found on foods consumed by children. The EPA has said for years that exposures below the legal tolerances it set were nothing to worry about.

Yet scientific research in recent years has demonstrated an association between chlorpyrifos exposure and cognitive deficits in children. The evidence of harm to young developing brains is so strong that the EPA in 2015 said that it “cannot find that any current tolerances are safe.”

The EPA said that because of unacceptable levels of the insecticide in food and drinking water it planned to ban the pesticide from agricultural use. But pressure from Dow and chemical industry lobbyists have kept the chemical in wide use on American farms. The FDA’s recent report found it the 11th most prevalent pesticides in U.S. foods out of hundreds included in the testing.

A federal court in August said that the Trump Administration was endangering public health by keeping chlorpyrifos in use for agricultural food production. The court cited “scientific evidence that its residue on food causes neurodevelopmental damage to children” and ordered the EPA to revoke all tolerances and ban the chemical from the market. The EPA has yet to act on that order, and is seeking a rehearing before the full 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

When asked how to explain its changing positions on chlorpyrifos, an agency spokesman said that the EPA “plans to continue to review the science addressing neurodevelopmental effects” of the chemical.

The fact that it is still in wide use frustrates and angers physicians who specialize in child health and leaves them wondering what other pesticide exposures in food might be doing to people.

“The bottom line is that the biggest public health concerns for chlorpyrifos are from its presence in foods,” said Dr. Bradley Peterson director of the Institute for the Developing Mind at the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles. “Even small exposures can potentially have harmful effects.”

The EPA decision to continue to allow chlorpyrifos into American diets is “emblematic of a broader dismissal of scientific evidence” that challenges human health as well as scientific integrity, according to Dr. Leonardo Trasande, who directs the Division of Environmental Pediatrics within the Department of Pediatrics at New York University’s Langone Health.

Epidemiologist Philip Landrigan, director of Boston College’s Global Public Health initiative, and a former scientist with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, is advocating for a ban on all organophosphates, a class of insecticides that includes chlorpyrifos, because of the danger they pose to children.

“Children are exquisitely vulnerable to these chemicals,” said Landrigan. “This is about protecting kids.”

Increased tolerances at industry request

The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act authorizes the EPA to regulate the use of pesticides on foods according to specific statutory standards and grants the EPA a limited authority to establish tolerances for pesticides meeting statutory qualifications.

Tolerances vary from food to food and pesticide to pesticide, so an apple might legally carry more of a certain type of insecticide residue than a plum, for instance. The tolerances also vary from country to country, so what the U.S. sets as a legal tolerance for residues of a pesticide on a particular food can – and often is – much different than limits set in other countries. As part of the setting of those tolerances, regulators examine data showing how much residue persists after a pesticide is used as intended on a crop, and they undertake the dietary risk assessments to confirm that the levels of pesticide residues don’t pose human health concerns.

The agency says that it accounts for the fact that the diets of infants and children may be quite different from those of adults and that they consume more food for their size than adults. The EPA also says it combines information about routes of pesticide exposure – food, drinking water residential uses – with information about the toxicity of each pesticide to determine the potential risks posed by the pesticide residues. The agency says if the risks are “unacceptable,” it will not approve the tolerances.

The EPA also says that when it makes tolerance decisions, it “seeks to harmonize U.S. tolerances with international standards whenever possible, consistent with U.S. food safety standards and agricultural practices.”

Monsanto, which became of unit of Bayer AG earlier this year, has successfully asked the EPA to expand the levels of glyphosate residues allowed in several foods, including in wheat and oats.

In 1993, for example, the EPA had a tolerance for glyphosate in oats at 0.1 parts per million (ppm) but in 1996 Monsanto asked EPA to raise the tolerance to 20 ppm and the EPA did as asked. In 2008, at Monsanto’s suggestion, the EPA again looked to raise the tolerance for glyphosate in oats, this time to 30 ppm.

At that time, it also said it would raise the tolerance for glyphosate in barley from 20 ppm to 30 ppm, raise the tolerance in field corn from 1 to 5 ppm and raise the tolerance of glyphosate residue in wheat from 5 ppm to 30 ppm, a 500 percent increase. The 30 ppm for wheat is matched by more than 60 other countries, but is well above the tolerances allowed in more than 50 countries, according to an international tolerance database established with EPA funding and maintained now by a private government affairs consulting group.

“The Agency has determined that the increased tolerances are safe, i.e, there is a reasonable certainty that no harm will result from aggregate exposure to the pesticide chemical residue,” the EPA stated in the May 21, 2008 Federal Register.

“All these statements from EPA – trust us it’s safe. But the truth is we have no idea if it actually is safe,” said Dr. Bruce Lanphear, a clinician scientist at the Child & Family Research Institute, BC Children’s Hospital, and a professor in the faculty of health sciences at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia. Lanphear said that while regulators assume toxic effects increase with dose, scientific evidence shows that some chemicals are most toxic at the lowest levels of exposure. Protecting public health will require rethinking basic assumptions about how agencies regulate chemicals, he argued in a paper published last year.

In recent years both Monsanto and Dow have received new tolerance levels for the pesticides dicamba and 2,4-D on food as well.

Raising tolerances allows farmers to use pesticides in various ways that may leave more residues, but that doesn’t threaten human health, according to Monsanto. In a blog posted last year, Monsanto scientist Dan Goldstein asserted the safety of pesticide residues in food generally and of glyphosate in particular. Even when they exceed the regulatory legal limits, pesticide residues are so minuscule they pose no danger, according to Goldstein, who posted the blog before he retired from Monsanto this year.

About half of foods sampled contained traces of pesticides

Amid the scientific concerns, the most recent FDA data on pesticide residues in food found that roughly half of the foods the agency sampled contained traces of insecticides, herbicides, fungicides and other toxic chemicals used by farmers in growing hundreds of different foods.

More than 90 percent of apple juices sampled were found to contain pesticides. The FDA also reported that more than 60 percent of cantaloupe carried residues. Overall, 79 percent of American fruits and 52 percent of vegetables contained residues of various pesticides – many known by scientists to be linked to a range of illnesses and disease. Pesticides were also found in soy, corn, oat and wheat products, and finished foods like cereals, crackers and macaroni.

The FDA analysis “almost exclusively” is focused on products that are not labeled as organic, according to FDA spokesman Peter Cassell.

The FDA downplays the percentage of foods containing pesticide residues and focuses on the percentage of samples for which there is no violation of the tolerance levels. In its most recent report, the FDA said that more than “99% of domestic and 90% of import human foods were compliant with federal standards.”

The report marked the agency’s launch of testing for the weed killer glyphosate in foods. The Government Accountability Office said in 2014 that both the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture should start regularly testing foods for glyphosate. The FDA did only limited tests looking for glyphosate residues, however, sampling corn and soy and milk and eggs for the weed killer, the agency said. No residues of glyphosate were found in milk or eggs, but residues were found in 63.1 percent of the corn samples and 67 percent of the soybean samples, according to FDA data.

The agency did not disclose findings by one of its chemists of glyphosate in oatmeal and honey products, even though the FDA chemist made his findings known to supervisors and other scientists outside the agency.

Cassell said the honey and oatmeal findings were not part of the agency’s assignment.

Overall, the new FDA report covered sampling done from Oct. 1, 2015, through Sept. 30, 2016, and included analysis of 7,413 samples of food examined as part of the FDA’s “pesticide monitoring program.” Most of the samples were of food to be eaten by people, but 467 samples were of animal food. The agency said that pesticide residues were found in 47.1 percent of the samples of food for people produced domestically and 49.3 percent of food imported from other countries destined for consumer meals. Animal food products were similar, with pesticide residues found in 57 percent of the domestic samples and 45.3 percent of imported foods for animals.

Many imported food samples showed residues of pesticides high enough to break the legal limits, the FDA said. Nearly 20 percent of imported grain and grain product samples showed illegally high levels of pesticides, for example.

The Future Of Food Needs Transparency And Integrity

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By Stacy Malkan and Carey Gillam

“Food companies can’t figure out what Americans want to eat,” according to a June Wall Street Journal article.

Food industry CEOs are “rushing for the exits,” WSJ reported in October, and the food lobby is “splintering,” Politico explained, as food companies disagree about how to respond to shifting consumer tastes.

But it’s no mystery what Americans want to eat — or why the food industry is struggling.

Consumers are demanding foods free of artificial colors, faked flavors, pesticides, preservatives, growth hormones, antibiotics and GMOs, as Fortune magazine reported in 2015 — these trends led by millennials are driving an “$18 billion food revolution.”

But rather than provide what customers want, some food industry players strive to confuse rather than comply with market demands.

Among the tactics in the toolbox, they use front groups and friendly academics to push propaganda to promote their products, and denigrate those who advocate for honest information.

One recent and blatant example appeared here in Investor’s Business Daily, in two opinion articles authored by Henry I. Miller, a Hoover Institution fellow. Miller’s resume certainly makes him appear authoritative and impressive — someone consumers could trust.

But in using the IBD forum to rail against the small non-profit consumer group we work for, U.S. Right to Know, he revealed his allegiance to certain industry interests who seek to keep consumers in the dark.

Our organization advocates for truth and transparency in the food system. We spend most of our time filing information requests for data and documents from state and federal agencies and institutions to share with consumers about food policy matters.

Miller has become fairly well known for putting science and public health second to corporate interests. He was listed in a 1994 memo as a “key supporter” of Philip Morris’ campaign to fight tobacco regulations.

He was also named in an internal Monsanto Company document as a resource who could help discredit the World Health Organization’s cancer research panel after it declared Monsanto’s key herbicide to be a “probable” human carcinogen. That weed killer, glyphosate, is widely used globally in agricultural food production.

The Monsanto plan to protect its weed killer could not have been more clear: “Engage Henry Miller” it states. Documents reported by The New York Times revealed that an article posted by Miller in Forbes criticizing the cancer panel “largely mirrored” a draft provided by a Monsanto executive. Forbes severed its relationship with Miller as a result and deleted all his articles from the site.

Miller’s move now to discredit U.S. Right to Know seems driven by the same industry forces that led him to try to discredit the global cancer science group. Offering no evidence whatsoever, he insinuated that U.S. Right to Know is somehow in cahoots with the Russian government.

The slanderous missives are ironic, considering that the public relations firm hired by the agrichemical industry to salvage the reputation of their embattled GMO and pesticide products was Ketchum – the firm that pushed Russia’s interests in the United States for a decade until 2015.

So why would certain corporate food industry interests want or need a front man to attack our little nonprofit? The answer is easy: Investigations by U.S. Right to Know have turned up hidden documents — many of them now posted in the UCSF Chemical Industry Documents Archive — that have sparked multiple media investigations into the lobbying and propaganda operations of the food and agrichemical industries.

Articles about secretive food industry strategies to mislead consumers, lawmakers and investors have been published in the New York Times, BMJ, the Guardian, Le Monde, Bloomberg, Boston Globe, CBC, public health journals and many other outlets.

P.R. Shenanigans

Along with Miller, Monsanto tapped many other “industry partners” to try to discredit the scientists who warned about Monsanto’s herbicide, including the Genetic Literacy Project, Grocery Manufacturers Association and other food-industry funded groups.

These are the sorts of public relations shenanigans the food brands should shun if they hope to gain consumer trust.

For the record, we have no ties whatsoever to Russia. We are a food industry watchdog group. We examine how the food and agri-chemical industries operate behind the scenes to influence lawmakers, regulators, academics and others. And we share that information with the public.

Truth and transparency are scary concepts for certain corporate interests, to be sure. But these corporate players and their investors would be wise to listen to, and appreciate, consumer calls for honest advertising and open information about the risks as well as the rewards that come with a modern food system.

The articles by Dr. Henry I. Miller discussed here can be found at:

Russia Does Far Worse Than Meddle In Our Elections — It Meddles In Our Science, Part I

Russia Does Far Worse Than Meddle In Our Elections — It Meddles In Our Science: Part II

This story originally appeared in Investor’s Business Daily.

First Monsanto Roundup Cancer Trial Underway

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Related coverage:

  • Landmark Lawsuit Claims Monsanto Hid Cancer Danger of Weedkiller for Decades, by Carey Gillam in The Guardian
  • First Monsanto Roundup Cancer Trial Jury Selection, Carey Gillam’s blog

By Carey Gillam

Let the battle begin. Opening statements are slated for Monday in the landmark legal case that for the first time puts Monsanto and its Roundup herbicide on trial over allegations that the company’s widely used weed killer can cause cancer.

Dewayne “Lee” Johnson, a San Francisco-area school groundskeeper who used a form of Roundup regularly at his job, will face off against the global seed and chemical giant in a trial expected to extend into August. Johnson hopes to persuade a jury that Monsanto, which last month became a subsidiary of Bayer AG, is to blame for the non-Hodgkin lymphoma that doctors have said leaves him only weeks or months left to live.

Hints of the courtroom drama to come unfolded over the last week of June as jury selection dragged on for days, with Monsanto claiming widespread bias among prospective jurors. A number of the members of the jury pool, Monsanto’s attorney said, revealed in jury questionnaires that they view Monsanto as “evil.” Some even said they believe the company has “killed people,” a Monsanto attorney lawyer told San Francisco Superior Court Judge Suzanne Bolanos.

Monsanto’s attorneys cited similar issues in seeking to quell media coverage of the trial, telling the judge that she should not allow news cameras to televise the events because the publicity would “create a significant safety risk” for Monsanto’s employees and attorneys who have been targeted with “multiple threats and disturbing communications,” related to the litigation. Monsanto said employees have received threatening phone calls as well as ominous postcards sent to their homes. One postcard displayed a skull and crossbones along with a photo of the recipient, Monsanto said in a court filing.

Judge Bolanos ruled that some parts of the trial will be allowed to be broadcast, including opening statements, closing arguments and the announcement of a verdict. The trial is expected to be closely followed by people around the world; the French news outlet Agence France Presse is among the contingent of media who sought permission to cover the case.

Heated debates over the safety of Roundup and the active ingredient glyphosate have spanned the globe for years. Concerns mounted after internal Monsanto documents came to light through court-ordered discovery, showing conversations among Monsanto employees about “ghost” writing certain scientific papers to help influence regulatory and public opinion about Monsanto products.

Many of those internal corporate records are expected to be a key part of Johnson’s case. Johnson’s attorneys say they have evidence that Monsanto has long known that glyphosate-based herbicides such as Roundup are carcinogenic and have hidden that information from consumers and regulators. They allege Monsanto has manipulated the scientific record and regulatory assessments of glyphosate in order to protect corporate glyphosate-related revenues. Monsanto knew of the dangers and “made conscious decisions not to redesign, warn or inform the unsuspecting public,” the Johnson lawsuit claims.

If they can convince a jury of the allegations, the lawyers say they plan to ask for potentially “hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Johnson’s lawsuit against Monsanto makes him one of roughly 4,000 plaintiffs who sued the company after the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen in March 2015. The IARC classification was based on a review of more than a decade of published, peer-reviewed scientific studies analyzing glyphosate and glyphosate-based herbicides. Johnson’s case is the first to go to trial. Another is scheduled for trial in October in St. Louis, Missouri.

Monsanto argues there is no justification for any of the claims, and asserts it has decades of regulatory findings of safety and hundreds of research studies to back its defense. “Glyphosate is the most tested herbicide in history,” Monsanto stated in its trial brief.

The company says it plans to introduce expert testimony demonstrating that the science is firmly on its side—”the entire body of epidemiology literature shows no causal association” between its glyphosate-based herbicides and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, the company states. As well, the animal testing database “is most consistent with glyphosate not being a human carcinogen,” according to Monsanto.

The company’s attorneys also plan to show that Johnson’s exposure was minimal, and notably, that development of his type of cancer—a disease called mycosis fungoides that causes lesions on the skin—takes many years to form and could not have developed in the short period between Johnson’s exposure and his diagnosis.

Monsanto’s attorneys argue in court filings that Johnson’s claims are so weak the judge should instruct the jury to provide a directed verdict in Monsanto’s favor.

But Johnson’s attorneys plan to tell jury members that Johnson began to experience a skin rash not long after being accidentally doused in a Monsanto glyphosate-based herbicide called Ranger Pro. He saw the rash—which turned to lesions and then invaded lymph nodes—worsen after he would use the chemical, which was frequently as he treated school grounds. Johnson’s attorneys plan to tell jurors that Johnson was so worried that the herbicide was to blame that he called Monsanto’s offices as well as a poison hotline number listed on the herbicide label. Monsanto employees recorded his outreach and his concerns, internal Monsanto documents show. But even after the IARC classification of glyphosate as a probable carcinogen, Monsanto did not inform him of any risk, according to evidence to be presented at the trial.

As part of their case, Johnson’s attorneys intend to present video depositions of 10 former or current Monsanto employees, and of former Environmental Protection Agency official Jess Rowland, whose relationship with Monsanto has sparked allegations of collusion and an inquiry from the EPA’s Office of Inspector General. They also will call to the stand Johnson himself, his wife, his doctors, and several scientists as expert witnesses.

The Monsanto witness list includes 11 expert witnesses who will testify both about the necessity of herbicides, including glyphosate-based herbicides; certain scientific literature; the plaintiff’s type of cancer and potential causes; and other evidence that Monsanto says discredits Johnson’s claims.

Johnson’s attorneys will start the opening statements on Monday, and have projected that initial explanation of their case to the jury will take roughly 1-1/2 hours. Monsanto’s attorneys have told the court they expect their opening statements to take roughly 1-1/4 hours.

This story originally appeared in EcoWatch.

Internal FDA Emails: Weedkiller Found in Granola and Crackers

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This article was published the Guardian on April 30, 2018

By Carey Gillam

US government scientists have detected a weedkiller linked to cancer in an array of commonly consumed foods, emails obtained through a freedom of information request show.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been testing food samples for residues of glyphosate, the active ingredient in hundreds of widely used herbicide products, for two years, but has not yet released any official results.

But the internal documents obtained by the Guardian show the FDA has had trouble finding any food that does not carry traces of the pesticide.

“I have brought wheat crackers, granola cereal and corn meal from home and there’s a fair amount in all of them,” FDA chemist Richard Thompson wrote to colleagues in an email last year regarding glyphosate. Thompson, who is based in an FDA regional laboratory in Arkansas, wrote that broccoli was the only food he had “on hand” that he found to be glyphosate-free.

That internal FDA email, dated January 2017, is part of a string of FDA communications that detail agency efforts to ascertain how much of the popular weedkiller is showing up in American food. The tests mark the agency’s first-ever such examination…

See full article in The Guardian and more reporting about glyphosate here.

Hold the Plum Pudding: US Food Sampling Shows Troubling Pesticide Residues

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By Carey Gillam

Sometimes the truth about our food is not very appetizing.

As many gather this holiday season for shared family meals, it is likely that they’ll be serving up small doses of pesticides with each plate passed, including a prevalent type shown to be harmful to children and reproductive health.

New data released recently by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) shows a rise in the occurrence of pesticide residues detected in thousands of samples of commonly consumed foods. Documents obtained from the agency through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests also show the government is bracing for more, with the use of at least one controversial weed killing chemical – the herbicide known as 2,4-D – expected to triple in the next year.

And buried deep within the FDA’s latest annual pesticide residue report is data showing that a controversial insecticide called chlorpyrifos, which is marketed by Dow Chemical and is banned from household use due to known dangers, was the fourth-most prevalent pesticide found in foods out of 207 pesticides detected.

Overall, about 50 percent of domestic food and 43 percent of imported foods sampled showed pesticide residues in the FDA’s testing for fiscal year 2015, which is the period covered in the new report. That is up from about 37 percent of domestic and 28 percent of imported foods found with residues in 2010, and up from 38.5 percent and 39 percent, respectively, found by FDA a decade earlier in 2005.

FDA sampling has been shrinking over the years, dropping about 25 percent from a decade ago from more than 7,900 samples to 5,989 samples tested in its latest report. The U.S. Department of Agriculture also does annual pesticide residue testing, but looks at more than 10,000 samples. The latest USDA residue report, which also was for the 2015 time period, found about 85 percent of samples contained pesticide residues.

Notably, samples of fruits and vegetables – considered healthy food choices – showed the highest frequency of pesticide residues in the new FDA report. Roughly 82 percent of domestic American fruits and 62 percent of domestic vegetables carried residues of weed killers, insecticides and other pesticides commonly used by farmers.

Among the domestic food samples, FDA said 97 percent of apples, 83 percent of grapes, 60 percent of tomatoes, 57 percent of mushrooms and 53 percent of plums carried residues. Exactly half of the fruit jams and jellies and similar spreads examined were tainted with pesticides, according to the FDA data.

Looking at imported fruits and vegetables, the FDA found that roughly 51 percent of imported fruits and 47 percent of imported vegetables carried residues. Overall, the imported foods had more illegally high levels of pesticide residues than did domestic foods sampled. More than 9 percent of both imported fruits and vegetables were considered in violation of legal pesticide residue limits compared to only 2.2 percent of American-grown fruits and 3.8 percent of domestic vegetables.

The FDA said some specific commodities brought into the country may warrant special attention due to illegally high levels of pesticides, including cabbage, mushrooms, oranges and orange juice and rice.

Outdated “safe” levels

The Environmental Protection Agency sets legal limits, referred to as “maximum residue limits” (MRLs) for pesticide residues on foods. The FDA and USDA routinely assure consumers that if residues are below the established MRLs, they are both legal and safe. But many scientists and medical professionals disagree, saying regulatory methods are outdated and too dependent on input from the chemical industry players selling the pesticides.

“Risk assessment practices at federal agencies have not been updated for modern scientific principles, including accounting for the fact that people are exposed to multiple chemicals and that certain groups, such as genetically susceptible, the very young and old can be at greater risk of exposure,” said Tracey Woodruff, a former EPA senior scientist who directs the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine.

The controversy around chlorpyrifos underscores those concerns. Farmers have been using chlorpyrifos since 1965 and the government has long maintained that as long as residues are below established MRLs, they are safe.

But in recent years, that regulatory view has shifted as studies show that this pesticide, which is used on corn and fruits and vegetables such as cranberries, Brussels sprouts, and broccoli, can have harmful neurodevelopmental effects on fetuses whose mothers are exposed and on young children. Research ties the chemical to attention deficit problems, tremors, and autism.

On December 15, California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment listed chlorpyrifos as known to “cause reproductive toxicity.” And the EPA has said that it can no longer vouch for the safety of the residues found in food. The EPA had planned to outlaw chlorpyrifos use in agriculture. But the Trump administration reversed that plan earlier this year after heavy lobbying from Dow and other agrochemical industry representatives.

The FDA declined to comment about its report and declined to address questions about the safety of chlorpyrifos residues found in food.

Surge in 2,4-D expected

Separate from the FDA’s published residue report, internal FDA documents show the agency working to get a handle on the residues of two widely used herbicides – glyphosate and 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D). An internal memo dated in May of this year obtained through FOIA states that 2,4-D use is “expected to triple in the coming year” because of new genetically engineered crops designed to tolerate direct application of the herbicide.

Neither FDA nor USDA has routinely tested for glyphosate despite the fact it is the world’s most widely used herbicide, and testing by academics, consumer groups and other countries has shown residues of the weed killer in food. The FDA said in early 2016 that it planned to start testing for the weed killer, and documents show that one FDA chemist reported finding residues in honey and in oatmeal products, but overall results of the program testing have not been released publicly.

Details of the testing program are being kept secret, and in the documents released by FDA through the FOIA, large blocks of information are blacked out. FDA declined to comment about the status of the glyphosate and 2,4-D testing, including when it might publish some results.

Pesticides that the FDA did test for, and find, in the latest food sampling report, included endosulfan, an insecticide that has been banned in more than 80 countries and is being phased out due to established dangers to human health; the insecticide DDT, which was banned in the 1970s in the United States, and malathion, an insecticide classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as probably carcinogenic.

This article first appeared in Environmental Health News.