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.

I Won a Historic Lawsuit But May Not Live to Get the Money

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This article was originally published in Time Magazine.

By Carey Gillam

Dewayne Anthony Lee Johnson has always just gone by Lee. He lived a modest life for 42 years, and was devastated when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2014. Now 46, as he struggles with his advancing illness, Johnson has found sudden celebrity with a historic victory over one of the world’s most powerful and controversial corporations – Monsanto Co.

Johnson sued Monsanto alleging that he developed a deadly form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma after being drenched with the company’s herbicides, which he sprayed as part of his job as school groundskeeper. In Aug. 2018, a jury in San Francisco unanimously found that Monsanto had failed to warn of the carcinogenic dangers of its popular Roundup herbicide and related products, which Johnson sprayed regularly. Thousands of other cancer victims are also suing Monsanto and awaiting their own day in court, but Johnson was the first to take the company to trial. The jury awarded Johnson a jaw-dropping $289 million, which a judge slashed to $78 million on Oct. 22. Evidence revealed in the trial included internal Monsanto records that included discussions of “ghostwriting” scientific papers that asserted the safety of its products and plans to discredit an international agency that declared the main ingredient in Roundup, a chemical called glyphosate, to be a probable human carcinogen.

Monsanto, now a unit of Bayer AG, maintains that its products do not cause cancer. On Nov. 20, the company further appealed, seeking to overturn even Johnson’s reduced award and the trial court judge’s refusal to grant Monsanto’s request for a new trial. But the initial verdict already put Johnson’s life on a very different trajectory, bringing him international attention and heartbreak. He spoke with TIME about the aftermath of his case.

Before I got sick life was pretty good. I had a good job. We were renting this nice house; we found it through some friends. It was almost in foreclosure so we were able to rent it for a good price. Three bedrooms and a nice big backyard. I didn’t have a car so my wife Araceli would drop me off at work or I would ride my bike to the bus stop and take the bus to work. My job title at the school district was integrated pest manager, IPM. I did everything – caught skunks, mice, and raccoons, patched holes in walls, worked on irrigation issues. And I sprayed the pesticides, the “juice.” I had to be at work by sun up to make sure we had time to spray before the kids got to school. One of the guys I worked with didn’t want to wear protective gear but I told him he had to. You got to be careful with this stuff. On a typical day I would fill up my little container with raw pesticide liquid and then put that in the back of my truck and then mix a load before I would leave the yard. I’d mix it all in a tank and take that on the back of my truck and then head out to start spraying. I did not like using the chemicals but I loved that job. I would have been making $80,000 a year now if I was still there.

That day of the accident, the day the sprayer broke and I got drenched in the juice, I didn’t think that much about it. I washed up in the sink as best I could and changed my clothes. Later I went home and took a good long shower but I didn’t think, “Oh my god, I’m going to die from this stuff.” Then I got a little rash. Then it got worse and worse and worse. At one point I had lesions on my face, on my lips, all over my arms and legs.

When I first saw a doctor he was totally confused and didn’t know what was happening on my skin. He sent me to see a dermatologist who did a biopsy of a lesion on my knee. They sent me to UCSF (University of California San Francisco) and then to Stanford. A bunch of doctors came and checked me out. Then one day I got a call. They told me it was urgent, I had to come in to discuss my test results. When the doctor said I had cancer, my wife was sitting there with me. She started crying. I didn’t take it in right away. I don’t think I have still taken it in.

People want to say it’s Johnson v. Monsanto. They want me to talk about the company. I don’t want to do that. I don’t even want to say the company name. I just say ‘the big company.’ I don’t want to be slanderous. I’ve seen reports that I want an apology but that’s not true. I’m not a person who would think an apology would make me feel better – it certainly would not heal my cancer. This isn’t about me and that big company. It is important for people to know this stuff, to know about what they’re being exposed to. If people have the information they can make choices, they can be informed and protect themselves. I’m just a regular guy from a small town called Vallejo in the California Bay Area who happened to seek the truth about my failing health and found answers.

It’s not to say that I didn’t get mad. Plenty of things upset me as the evidence came out in court. I had called the big company early on when I was sick trying to get some answers and at the time the woman I talked to on the phone was real nice. But you see in the emails that came out that there was really no concern for me. They never called me back, that made me mad. I think not getting a call back is what made me pursue legal action. And then when I was in court and heard about the ghostwriting of the science and you see in the emails that everybody is just on a script; they program everybody to stick to the script about safety even if the science says different. [Editor’s Note: Internal Monsanto emails presented at trial showed that Johnson called the company in November 2014 reporting his concerns that his cancer was triggered by being “soaked to the skin” in a Monsanto herbicide during a work accident. “He’s looking for answers,” a Monsanto product support specialist wrote to Monsanto Dan Goldstein, the company’s medical sciences and outreach executive. Goldstein replied that the “story is not making any sense to me at all,” and said he would call Johnson back. But Johnson said he never received a call and Goldstein testified he could not remember whether or not he called Johnson.]

It seemed like the whole world was watching when the judge read that verdict, line by line, and then they announced a quarter billion dollar settlement, $289 million dollars. I think I immediately was paranoid; I literally asked the young bailiff if he could roll out of court with me because I knew the attention this would get and I’ve never really been a fan of attention or fanfare. And now it seems like that’s taken over my life. I get requests for media interviews from all over the world, and people ask me to come to their events and speak, and I’ve had people telling me they want to buy my “life rights” to try to get movie deals. I’ve had strangers try to suddenly become my best friend on Facebook, and then there was this kind of voo-doo priestess who somehow got my number, calling and calling and texting nonstop, promising she could heal me. When I shunned her, she said I would remember her on my death bed, wishing I had let her help me. It’s crazy. My kids are handling it well but they don’t dig the attention — we’re a small family and we’ve just been trying to deal with becoming nationally known.

Sometimes it really gets overwhelming with so many calls and requests for interviews or speaking events. At the same time, though, I see myself now as a major contributor for a conversation that’s been brewing for years, but since the verdict the conversation is a lot louder. I try to give each request my attention but just can’t due to my health and trying to help take care of my kids. But I am trying to make this a priority. I want to see all these schools stop using glyphosate, first California, then the rest of the country. That is my small mission. And as overwhelming as it is, I do feel a lot of support and positive energy from many people who’ve reached out to me. I have felt the love and support of people all across the world and that gives me a whole new sense of drive and responsibility. Some people send small gifts, trinkets. They write to me about their own cancers. One woman wrote about her husband and how he had died. I would say I’ve received thousands of letters. It helps.

A lot of people ask me what I want to do with my life now. I don’t think I’m superman. I go through those little moments when my head is down and my elbows are on my knees and asking myself what am I going to do? But if I can get healthy, not give in to what my doctors say is a terminal situation, if I can get treatments and get closer to a cure then I see myself doing good things. I would love to start a foundation. And I want to do more with my music and art. I paint with oil or acrylic and I do some charcoal drawings. I also like to write; I’ve self-published two books – “My Opinion” and “The Perfect Front.”

Some people think I’m a rich man, they speak to me as if I’ve been paid already, which is far from reality. The truth is the appeals could go on well past my life expectancy. We can’t really celebrate or make plans or go on vacation because we don’t have that money. I get a social security check now every month. It doesn’t even cover the cost of the rent. People are trying to help me out, but I’m basically broke. It’s exciting sometimes to think that we may get millions of dollars, but right now we know we’re not. We’re living the ghost money life.

I’m not even sure I would know how to be a rich man. I would like to buy a house, something close to my kids’ schools, something to give them security. But there are only so many things you can buy. I don’t think there is very much you can or should do with millions of dollars other than try to help people. As for the judge cutting the $289 million down to $78 million, I never thought of that $289 million as anything that would go in my pockets. I knew there would be legal limits striking it and so I never really thought of it as mine. I don’t know if I’ll ever see the jury award in my lifetime. Hopefully my boys will though.

Mostly what I want is for my sons, all three of them, to feel like they have a solid security blanket and to know that they are taken care of. I want to show them the good path and give them the quality of life that allows them to get educated, to understand life and culture and people. I hope that one day they will look back and say, “My dad made history and stood up for himself and for us.”

My chemo has stopped because I am supposed to have more surgery for this thing they biopsied on my arm. Apparently, it’s some new melanoma. And I’ve got this pain that I call “hot spots” on my foot and my arm, burning my wrist. Sometimes I call them “burners.” But it is what it is. I used to be all shiny and a handsome guy – now I’m all messed up. I feel like if you’re sick, you shouldn’t hide it though. Share it with the world and maybe you can help someone.

So much is going on, but the most important thing to me is my boys. I’m so proud of my boys. I hate to think about dying. Even when I feel like I’m dying, I just make myself move past it. I feel like you can’t give in to it, the diagnosis, the disease, because then you really are dead. I don’t mess around with the death cloud, the dark thoughts, the fears. I’m planning for a good life.