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

Print Email Share Tweet

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.

My Friend Died from Cancer Today

Print Email Share Tweet

By Carey Gillam

My friend died from cancer today.

His was a short, eight-month-long battle for survival, but it was a brutal one. Now his wife and young children are not planning for Christmas; instead they are planning his funeral.

This man’s passing is a tragedy for his family and friends to be sure. But it also serves as a sad reminder of the tight grip cancer has taken on so many lives.

Approximately 39 percent of men and women living in the United States are expected to be diagnosed with cancer at some point during their lifetimes, according to the National Cancer Institute. For this year alone, the American Cancer Society has estimated there will be more than 1.68 million people newly diagnosed with cancer and more than 600,000 deaths from cancer. Cancer is the second-leading cause of death in the United States.

One of the sinister twists to this creeping killer is that while we know the myriad types of cancers are caused by mutations to the DNA within cells, pinpointing exactly what agent or actions triggered the deadly DNA changes that led to a specific cancer in a specific individual is not easy.

Researchers say there are an array of causes for cancer, including an unhealthy diet, obesity and alcohol intake. Researchers also point to what they call “environmental pollutants” ― substances such asbestos, arsenic, benzene, chromium and, notably, the pesticides that have become pervasive in our lives in recent decades and are used by farmers in food production.

Data from our Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) show that foods we eat on a regular basis contain residues of hundreds of different pesticides, tiny invisible traces of insecticides and weed killers in thousands of commonly consumed foods, including fruits and vegetables. We are also exposed to pesticides in our drinking water, and through applications made to our parks and playgrounds, lawns and gardens and schoolyards. Pesticides are also often sprayed from the air across fields and forestry.

Research suggests a possible connection between pesticides and cancers such as non-Hodgkin lymphoma, multiple myeloma, and prostate, liver, pancreatic, lung and non-melanoma skin cancers. The American Academy of Pediatrics is so concerned that it is on record voicing its concerns about pesticides and ties to childhood cancers, and has called for greater protections from exposures.

The Pesticide Action Network North America, a consumer and environmental advocacy group, says that evidence is growing ever stronger that pesticide exposure is a key contributor to what the organization calls a “cancer epidemic.”

Worldwide, there are more that 14 million cases of cancer occurring each year, and that number is expected to hit nearly 22 million by 2030. Cancer “affects almost everyone’s life, either directly or indirectly,” and beyond the toll on life and health it costs the United States more than $200 billion in medical costs and lost productivity, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

In order to reduce deaths from cancer we have to put more emphasis on preventing it in the first place, and a big part of that “primary prevention” has to do with addressing environmental causes, according to a 2016 report by the HHS National Toxicology Program (NTP). “An important step in primary prevention,” the NTP states, “is to identify the carcinogens.”

It is not a good sign that some members of Congress are now working to discredit and defund the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an arm of the World Health Organization specifically charged with identifying and classifying potential carcinogens. The actions by Republicans within the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology come after IARC angered Monsanto Co. when it declared the pesticide glyphosate, a key ingredient in Monsanto’s weed killing products, a probable carcinogen.

It is also not encouraging that President Trump nominated a pesticide safety advocate to oversee the Environmental Protection Agency’s chemical safety division. The nominee, Michael Dourson, has spent many years helping companies fight restrictions on potentially toxic chemicals. It is heartening, however, that strong opposition and outrage over Dourson’s nomination forced him to withdraw from consideration for the post on Wednesday.

Certainly, we all know someone with cancer or someone who has had it. But we cannot afford to become complacent, to accept this as normal, to allow politics to take precedence over public health. We need to work harder to support the science that identifies carcinogens, to encourage and fund research into alternatives to a toxic landscape, and to hold our regulators and lawmakers accountable for enforcing protective measures that limit our exposures to environmental pollutants.

I lost a friend to cancer today. It was just before dawn when he slipped away. A wife lost her husband of 30 years, a son and a daughter lost a father, and countless neighbors and friends lost a kind and generous soul, a man who devoted endless hours to coaching, mentoring and encouraging a community’s children alongside his own.

The losses are too great.

This article first appeared in the Huffington Post.