Chlorpyrifos: common pesticide tied to brain damage in children

Print Email Share Tweet

Chlorpyrifos, a widely used pesticide, is strongly linked to brain damage in children. These and other health concerns have led several countries and some U.S. states to ban chlorpyrifos, but the chemical is still allowed on food crops in the U.S. after successful lobbying by its manufacturer.

Chlorpyrifos in food

Chlorpyrifos insecticides were introduced by Dow Chemical in 1965 and have been used widely in agricultural settings. Commonly known as the active ingredient in the brand names Dursban and Lorsban, chlorpyrifos is an organophosphate insecticide, acaricide and miticide used primarily to control foliage and soil-borne insect pests on a variety of food and feed crops. Products come in liquid form as well as granules, powders, and water-soluble packets, and may be applied by either ground or aerial equipment.

Chlorpyrifos is used on a wide variety of crops including apples, oranges, strawberries, corn, wheat, citrus and other foods families and their children eat daily. USDA’s Pesticide Data Program found chlorpyrifos residue on citrus and melons even after being washed and peeled. By volume, chlorpyrifos is most used on corn and soybeans, with over a million pounds applied annually to each crop. The chemical is not allowed on organic crops.

Non-agricultural uses include golf courses, turf, green houses, and utilities.

Human health concerns

The American Academy of Pediatrics, which represents more than 66,000 pediatricians and pediatric surgeons, has warned that continued use of chlorpyrifos puts developing fetuses, infants, children and pregnant women at great risk.

Scientists have found that prenatal exposures to chlorpyrifos are associated with lower birth weight, reduced IQ, the loss of working memory, attention disorders, and delayed motor development. Key studies are listed below.

See these comments to regulators from the Endocrine Society citing “ample evidence that chlorpyrifos has extensive effects on neurological and endocrine systems with demonstrated evidence of harm to humans and wildlife.”

Chlorpyrifos is also linked to acute pesticide poisoning and can cause convulsions, respiratory paralysis, and sometimes, death.

FDA says food and drinking water exposures unsafe

Chlorpyrifos is so toxic that the European Food Safety Authority banned sales of the chemical as of January 2020, finding that there is no safe exposure level. Some U.S. states have also banned chlorpyrifos from farming use, including California and Hawaii.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reached agreement with Dow Chemical in 2000 to phase out all residential uses of chlorpyrifos because of scientific research showing the chemical is dangerous to the developing brains of babies and young children. It was banned from use around schools in 2012.

In October 2015, the EPA said it planned to revoke all food residue tolerances for chlorpyrifos, meaning it would no longer be legal to use it in agriculture. The agency said “expected residues of chlorpyrifos on food crops exceed the safety standard under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.” The move came in response to a petition for a ban from the Natural Resources Defense Council and Pesticide Action Network.

In November 2016, the EPA released a revised human health risk assessment for chlorpyrifos confirming it was unsafe to allow the chemical to continue in use in agriculture.  Among other things, the EPA said all food and drinking water exposures were unsafe, especially to children 1-2 years old. The EPA said the ban would take place in 2017.

Trump EPA delays ban

Following the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, the proposed chlorpyrifos ban was delayed. In March 2017, in one of his first formal actions as the nation’s top environmental official, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt rejected the petition by environmental groups and said the ban on chlorpyrifos would not go forward.

The Associated Press reported in June 2017 that Pruitt had met with Dow CEO Andrew Liveris 20 days before halting the ban. Media also reported that Dow contributed $1 million to Trump’s inaugural activities.

In February of 2018, EPA reached a settlement requiring Syngenta to pay a $150,000 fine and train farmers in pesticide use after the company failed to warn workers to avoid fields where chlorpyrifos was recently sprayed and several workers who entered the fields were sickened and required medical care. The Obama EPA had initially proposed a fine nearly nine times larger.

In February 2020, after pressure from consumer, medical, scientific groups and in face of growing calls for bans around the world, Corteva AgriScience (formerly DowDuPont) said it would phase out production of chlorpyrifos, but the chemical remains legal for other companies to make and sell.

According to an analysis published in July 2020, U.S. regulators relied on falsified data provided by Dow Chemical to allow unsafe levels of chlorpyrifos into American homes for years. The analysis from University of Washington researchers said the inaccurate findings were the result of a chlorpyrifos dosing study done in the early 1970s for Dow.

In September 2020 the EPA issued its third risk assessment on chlorpyrifos, saying “despite several years of study, peer review, and public process, the science addressing neurodevelopmental effects remains unresolved,” and it still could be used in food production.

The decision came after multiple meetings between the EPA and Corteva.

Groups and states sue EPA

Following the Trump administration’s decision to delay any ban until at least 2022, Pesticide Action Network and Natural Resources Defense Council filed suit against the EPA in April 2017, seeking to force the government to follow through with the Obama administration’s recommendations to ban chlorpyrifos. In August 2018, a federal appeals court found that the EPA broke the law by continuing to allow use of chlorpyrifos, and ordered EPA to finalize its proposed ban within two months. After more delays, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler announced in July 2019 that EPA would not ban the chemical.

Several states have sued the EPA over its failure to ban chlorpyrifos, including California, New York, Massachusetts, Washington, Maryland, Vermont and Oregon. The states argue in court documents that chlorpyrifos should be banned in food production due to the dangers associated with it.

Earthjustice has also filed a lawsuit in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Court seeking a nationwide ban on behalf of groups advocating for environmentalists, farmworkers and people with learning disabilities.

On April 29, 2021, the U.S. Judge Jed S. Rakoff  of the Ninth Circuit issued a decision, finding the EPA had engaged in an “egregious delay” that exposed a generation of American children to unsafe levels of chlorpyrifos.”  He ordered the EPA to issue a final regulation within 60 days that modifies or revokes the registration for chlorpyrifos.

Medical and scientific studies

Developmental neurotoxicity

“The epidemiological studies reviewed herein have reported statistically significant correlations between prenatal exposures to CPF [chlorpyrifos] and postnatal neurological complications, particularly cognitive deficits that are also associated with disruption of the structural integrity of the brain…. Various preclinical research groups throughout the world have consistently demonstrated that CPF is a developmental neurotoxicant. The developmental CPF neurotoxicity, which is well supported by studies using different animal models, routes of exposure, vehicles, and testing methods, is generally characterized by cognitive deficits and disruption of the structural integrity of the brain.” Developmental neurotoxicity of the organophosphorus insecticide chlorpyrifos: from clinical findings to preclinical models and potential mechanisms. Journal of Neurochemistry, 2017.

“Since 2006, epidemiological studies have documented six additional developmental neurotoxicants—manganese, fluoride, chlorpyrifos, dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, tetrachloroethylene, and the polybrominated diphenyl ethers.” Neurobehavioural effects of developmental toxicity. Lancet Neurology, 2014.

Childrens’ IQ & cognitive development

Longitudinal birth cohort study of inner-city mothers and children found that “higher prenatal CPF [chlorpyrifos] exposure, as measured in umbilical cord blood plasma, was associated with decreases in cognitive functioning on two different WISC-IV indices, in a sample of urban minority children at 7 years of age…the Working Memory Index was the most strongly associated with CPF exposure in this population.” Seven-Year Neurodevelopmental Scores and Prenatal Exposure to Chlorpyrifos, a Common Agricultural Pesticide. Environmental Health Perspectives, 2011.

Birth cohort study of predominantly Latino farmworker families in California associated a metabolite of organophosphate pesticides found in the urine in pregnant women with poorer scores in their children for memory, processing speed, verbal comprehension, perceptual reasoning and IQ.  “Our findings suggest that prenatal exposure to OP [organophosphate] pesticides, as measured by urinary DAP [dialkyl phosphate] metabolites in women during pregnancy, is associated with poorer cognitive abilities in children at 7 years of age. Children in the highest quintile of maternal DAP concentrations had an average deficit of 7.0 IQ points compared with those in the lowest quintile. Associations were linear, and we observed no threshold.” Prenatal Exposure to Organophosphate Pesticides and IQ in 7-Year-Old Children. Environmental Health Perspectives, 2011.

Prospective cohort study of women and their children findings “suggest that prenatal exposure to organophosphates is negatively associated with cognitive development, particularly perceptual reasoning, with evidence of effects beginning at 12 months and continuing through early childhood.” Prenatal Exposure to Organophosphates, Paraoxonase 1, and Cognitive Development in Childhood. Environmental Health Perspectives, 2011.

Prospective cohort study of an inner-city population found that children with high levels of exposure to chlorpyrifos “scored, on average, 6.5 points lower on the Bayley Psychomotor Development Index and 3.3 points lower on the Bayley Mental Development Index at 3 years of age compared with those with lower levels of exposure. Children exposed to higher, compared with lower, chlorpyrifos levels were also significantly more likely to experience Psychomotor Development Index and Mental Development Index delays, attention problems, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder problems, and pervasive developmental disorder problems at 3 years of age.” Impact of Prenatal Chlorpyrifos Exposure on Neurodevelopment in the First 3 Years of Life Among Inner-City Children. Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, 2006.

Longitudinal birth cohort study in an agricultural region of California extends “previous findings of associations between PON1 genotype and enzyme levels and certain domains of neurodevelopment through early school age, presenting new evidence that adverse associations between DAP [dialkyl phosphate]levels and IQ may be strongest in children of mothers with the lowest levels of PON1 enzyme.” Organophosphate pesticide exposure, PON1, and neurodevelopment in school-age children from the CHAMACOS study.  Environmental Research, 2014.

Autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders

Population based case-control study found that, “Prenatal or infant exposure to a priori selected pesticides—including glyphosate, chlorpyrifos, diazinon, and permethrin—were associated with increased odds of developing autism spectrum disorder.” Prenatal and infant exposure to ambient pesticides and autism spectrum disorder in children: population based case-control study. BMJ, 2019.

Population-based case-control study “observed positive associations between ASD [autism spectrum disorders] and prenatal residential proximity to organophosphate pesticides in the second (for chlorpyrifos) and third trimesters (organophosphates overall)”. Neurodevelopmental Disorders and Prenatal Residential Proximity to Agricultural Pesticides: The CHARGE Study. Environmental Health Perspectives, 2014.

See also: Tipping the Balance of Autism Risk: Potential Mechanisms Linking Pesticides and Autism. Environmental Health Perspectives, 2012.

Brain anomalies

“Our findings indicate that prenatal CPF [chlorpyrifos] exposure, at levels observed with routine (nonoccupational) use and below the threshold for any signs of acute exposure, has a measureable effect on brain structure in a sample of 40 children 5.9–11.2 y of age. We found significant abnormalities in morphological measures of the cerebral surface associated with higher prenatal CPF exposure….Regional enlargements of the cerebral surface predominated and were located in the superior temporal, posterior middle temporal, and inferior postcentral gyri bilaterally, and in the superior frontal gyrus, gyrus rectus, cuneus, and precuneus along the mesial wall of the right hemisphere”. Brain anomalies in children exposed prenatally to a common organophosphate pesticide.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2012.

Fetal growth

This study “saw a highly significant inverse association between umbilical cord chlorpyrifos levels and both birth weight and birth length among infants in the current cohort born prior to U.S. EPA regulatory actions to phase out residential uses of the insecticide.” Biomarkers in assessing residential insecticide exposures during pregnancy and effects on fetal growth. Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology, 2005.

Prospective, multiethnic cohort study found that “when the level of maternal PON1 activity was taken into account, maternal levels of chlorpyrifos above the limit of detection coupled with low maternal PON1 activity were associated with a significant but small reduction in head circumference. In addition, maternal PON1 levels alone, but not PON1 genetic polymorphisms, were associated with reduced head size. Because small head size has been found to be predictive of subsequent cognitive ability, these data suggest that chlorpyrifos may have a detrimental effect on fetal neurodevelopment among mothers who exhibit low PON1 activity.” In Utero Pesticide Exposure, Maternal Paraoxonase Activity, and Head Circumference.  Environmental Health Perspectives, 2003.

Prospective cohort study of minority mothers and their newborns “confirm our earlier findings of an inverse association between chlorpyrifos levels in umbilical cord plasma and birth weight and length…Further, a dose-response relationship was additionally seen in the present study. Specifically, the association between cord plasma chlorpyrifos and reduced birth weight and length was found principally among newborns with the highest 25% of exposure levels.” Prenatal Insecticide Exposures and Birth Weight and Length among an Urban Minority Cohort. Environmental Health Perspectives, 2004.

Lung Cancer  

In an evaluation of over 54,000 pesticide applicators in the Agricultural Health Study, scientists at the National Cancer Institute reported that the incidence of lung cancer was associated with chlorpyrifos exposure. “In this analysis of cancer incidence among chlorpyrifos-exposed licensed pesticide applicators in North Carolina and Iowa, we found a statistically significant trend of increasing risk of lung cancer, but not of any other cancer examined, with increasing chlorpyrifos exposure.” Cancer Incidence Among Pesticide Applicators Exposed to Chlorpyrifos in the Agricultural Health Study. Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 2004.

Parkinson’s Disease

Case-control study of people living in California’s Central Valley reported that ambient exposure to 36 commonly used organophosphate pesticides separately increased the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease. The study “adds strong evidence” that organophosphate pesticides are “implicated” in the etiology of idiopathic Parkinson’s disease. The association between ambient exposure to organophosphates and Parkinson’s disease risk. Occupational & Environmental Medicine, 2014.

Birth outcomes

Multiethnic parent cohort of pregnant women and newborns found that chlorpyrifos “was associated with decreased birth weight and birth length overall (p = 0.01 and p = 0.003, respectively) and with lower birth weight among African Americans (p = 0.04) and reduced birth length in Dominicans (p < 0.001)”. Effects of Transplacental Exposure to Environmental Pollutants on Birth Outcomes in a Multiethnic Population. Environmental Health Perspectives, 2003.

Neuroendocrine disruption

“Through the analysis of complex sex-dimorphic behavioral patterns we show that neurotoxic and endocrine disrupting activities of CPF [chlorpyrifos] overlap. This widely diffused organophosphorus pesticide might thus be considered as a neuroendocrine disruptor possibly representing a risk factor for sex-biased neurodevelopmental disorders in children.” Sex dimorphic behaviors as markers of neuroendocrine disruption by environmental chemicals: The case of chlorpyrifos. NeuroToxicology, 2012.

Tremor

“The present findings show that children with high prenatal exposure to chlorpyrifos were significantly more likely to show mild or mild to moderate tremor in one or both arms when assessed between the ages of 9 and 13.9 years of age….Taken together, growing evidence suggests that prenatal exposure to CPF [chlorpyrifos], at current standard usage levels, is associated with a range of persistent and inter-related developmental problems.” Prenatal exposure to the organophosphate pesticide chlorpyrifos and childhood tremor. NeuroToxicology, 2015.

Cost of chlorpyrifos

Cost estimates of exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the European Union found that “Organophosphate exposures were associated with 13.0 million (sensitivity analysis, 4.24 million to 17.1 million) lost IQ points and 59 300 (sensitivity analysis, 16 500 to 84 400) cases of intellectual disability, at costs of €146 billion (sensitivity analysis, €46.8 billion to €194 billion).” Neurobehavioral Deficits, Diseases, and Associated Costs of Exposure to Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals in the European Union. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 2015.

Thyroid in mice

“The present study showed that exposure of CD1 mice, during critical windows of prenatal and postnatal development, at CPF [chlorpyrifos] dose levels below those inhibiting brain AchE, can induce alterations in thyroid.” Developmental Exposure to Chlorpyrifos Induces Alterations in Thyroid and Thyroid Hormone Levels Without Other Toxicity Signs in Cd1 Mice.  Toxicological Sciences, 2009.

Problems with industry studies

“In March 1972, Frederick Coulston and colleagues at the Albany Medical College reported results of an intentional chlorpyrifos dosing study to the study’s sponsor, Dow Chemical Company. Their report concluded that 0.03 mg/kg-day was the chronic no-observed-adverse-effect-level (NOAEL) for chlorpyrifos in humans. We demonstrate here that a proper analysis by the original statistical method should have found a lower NOAEL (0.014 mg/kg-day), and that use of statistical methods first available in 1982 would have shown that even the lowest dose in the study had a significant treatment effect. The original analysis, conducted by Dow-employed statisticians, did not undergo formal peer review; nevertheless, EPA cited the Coulston study as credible research and kept its reported NOAEL as a point of departure for risk assessments throughout much of the 1980′s and 1990′s. During that period, EPA allowed chlorpyrifos to be registered for multiple residential uses that were later cancelled to reduce potential health impacts to children and infants. Had appropriate analyses been employed in the evaluation of this study, it is likely that many of those registered uses of chlorpyrifos would not have been authorized by EPA. This work demonstrates that reliance by pesticide regulators on research results that have not been properly peer-reviewed may needlessly endanger the public.” Flawed analysis of an intentional human dosing study and its impact on chlorpyrifos risk assessments. Environment International, 2020.

“In our review of raw data on a prominent pesticide, chlorpyrifos, and a related compound, discrepancies were discovered between the actual observations and the conclusions drawn by the test laboratory in the report submitted for authorization of the pesticide.” Safety of Safety Evaluation of Pesticides: developmental neurotoxicity of chlorpyrifos and chlorpyrifos-methyl. Environmental Health, 2018.

Other fact sheets

Harvard Kennedy School Shorenstein Center: A controversial insecticide and its effect on brain development: Research and resources

Harvard University: The Most Widely Used Pesticide, One Year Later

Earthjustice: Chlorpyrifos: The toxic pesticide harming our children and environment

Sierra Club: Kids and Chlorpyrifos

Journalism and Opinion

Imaging by Bradley Peterson, via Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences; New York Times

Court Rules that EPA’s Delay “Exposed a Generation of American Children” to Brain-Damaging Pesticide Chlorpyrifos , by Sharon Lerner, The Intercept. “After 14 years of legal battles, a federal court ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to take actions that will likely force the neurotoxic pesticide chlorpyrifos off the market. The federal agency has for years been considering mounting evidence that links the pesticide to brain damage in children — including loss of IQ, learning difficulties, ADHD, and autism — but, as the court acknowledged, has repeatedly delayed taking action.”

Trump’s Legacy: Damaged Brains, by Nicholas Kristof, New York Times. “The pesticide, which belongs to a class of chemicals developed as a nerve gas made by Nazi Germany, is now found in food, air and drinking water. Human and animal studies show that it damages the brain and reduces I.Q.s while causing tremors among children.”

Protect Our Children’s Brains, by Sharon Lerner, New York Times. “The widespread use of chlorpyrifos does point to the fact that it’s not the kind of chemical that harms everyone who comes in contact with it — or causes them to drop dead on impact. Instead, the research shows increases in the risk of suffering from certain developmental problems that, while less dramatic, are also, alarmingly, enduring.”

Poison Fruit: Dow Chemical Wants Farmers to Keep Using a Pesticide Linked to Autism and ADHD, by Sharon Lerner, The Intercept. “Dow, the giant chemical company that patented chlorpyrifos and still makes most of the products containing it, has consistently disputed the mounting scientific evidence that its blockbuster chemical harms children. But the government report made it clear that the EPA now accepts the independent science showing that the pesticide used to grow so much of our food is unsafe.”

When enough data are not enough to enact policy: The failure to ban chlorpyrifos, by Leonardo Trasande, PLOS Biology. “Scientists have a responsibility to speak up when policymakers fail to accept scientific data. They need to emphatically declare the implications of policy failures, even if some of the scientific underpinnings remain uncertain.”

How Has This Pesticide Not Been Banned? by the editorial board of The New York Times. “The pesticide known as chlorpyrifos is both clearly dangerous and in very wide use. It is known to pass easily from mother to fetus and has been linked to a wide range of serious medical problems, including impaired development, Parkinson’s disease and some forms of cancer. That’s not entirely surprising. The chemical was originally developed by Nazis during World War II for use as a nerve gas. Here’s what is surprising: Tons of the pesticide are still being sprayed across millions of acres of United States farmland every year, nearly five years after the Environmental Protection Agency determined that it should be banned.”

This pesticide is closely related to nerve agents used in World War II. Trump’s EPA doesn’t care, by Joseph G. Allen, Washington Post. “What we know about chlorpyrifos is alarming. Perhaps the most well-known study is one done by researchers at Columbia University who performed brain imaging on young kids with high exposure to chlorpyrifos. The results are shocking and unambiguous. In the words of the researchers: “This study reports significant associations of prenatal exposure to a widely used environmental neurotoxicant, at standard use levels, with structural changes in the developing human brain.”

A Strong Case Against a Pesticide Does Not Faze E.P.A. Under Trump, by Roni Caryn Robin, New York Times. “An updated human health risk assessment compiled by the E.P.A. in November found that health problems were occurring at lower levels of exposure than had previously been believed harmful. Infants, children, young girls and women are exposed to dangerous levels of chlorpyrifos through diet alone, the agency said. Children are exposed to levels up to 140 times the safety limit.”

Babies Are Larger After Ban On 2 Pesticides, Study Finds, by Richard Pérez-Peña, New York Times. “Pregnant women in upper Manhattan who were heavily exposed to two common insecticides had smaller babies than their neighbors, but recent restrictions on the two substances quickly lowered exposure and increased babies’ size, according to a study being published today.”

Poisons Are Us, by Timothy Egan, New York Times. “When you bite into a piece of fruit, it should be a mindless pleasure. Sure, that steroidal-looking strawberry with a toothpaste-white interior doesn’t seem right to begin with. But you shouldn’t have to think about childhood brain development when layering it over your cereal. The Trump administration, in putting chemical industry toadies between our food and public safety, has forced a fresh appraisal of breakfast and other routines that are not supposed to be frightful.”

On your dinner plate and in your body: The most dangerous pesticide you’ve never heard of, by Staffan Dahllöf, Investigative Reporting Denmark. “The poisonous effect of chlorpyrifos on insects is not disputed. The unresolved question is to what extent the usage of chlorpyrifos is dangerous to all living organisms like fish in nearby waters or farm workers in the fields, or to anybody eating the treated products.”

Neurotoxins on your kid’s broccoli: that’s life under Trump, by Carey Gillam, The Guardian. “How much is your child’s health worth? The answer coming from the leadership of the US Environmental Protection Agency is: not that much… So here we are – with scientific concerns for the safety of our innocent and vulnerable children on one side and powerful, wealthy corporate players on the other. Our political and regulatory leaders have shown whose interests they value most.”

Common Insecticide May Harm Boys’ Brains More Than Girls, by Brett Israel, Environmental Health News. “In boys, exposure to chlorpyrifos in the womb was associated with lower scores on short-term memory tests compared with girls exposed to similar amounts.“

More science fact sheets on chemicals in our food 

Find more U.S. Right to Know fact sheets:

Aspartame: Decades of Science Point to Serious Health Risks

Glyphosate Fact Sheet: Cancer and Other Health Concerns

Dicamba Fact Sheet 

U.S. Right to Know is an investigative public health group working globally to expose corporate wrongdoing and government failures that threaten the integrity of our food system, our environment and our health.  You can donate here to our investigations and sign up for our weekly newsletter.  

U.S. regulators relied for years on flawed pesticide data provided by Dow Chemical

Print Email Share Tweet

For years, U.S. regulators relied on falsified data provided by Dow Chemical to allow unsafe levels of the chemical chlorpyrifos into American homes, according to a new analysis from University of Washington researchers.

The analysis reexamines work from the 1970s sponsored by Dow and submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to guide the agency in establishing what scientists refer to as a “no-observed-adverse-effect-level” or NOAEL. Such thresholds are used to determine what types of use and at what level a chemical exposure can be allowed and still be considered “safe.”

According to the new analysis, published online July 3 in the journal Environmental International, the inaccurate findings were the result of a chlorpyrifos dosing study conducted by researcher Frederick Coulston and colleagues from the Albany Medical College in the early 1970s for Dow.

The authors of the new paper reexamining that prior work are Lianne Sheppard, Seth McGrew and Richard Fenske of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences, School of Public Health at the University of Washington.

While the study was authored by the Coulston group, the analysis was completed by a Dow statistician and concluded that 0.03 mg/kg-day was the chronic NOAEL level for chlorpyrifos in humans. But the new analysis by the University of Washington researchers found that wildly overstated the margin of safety. Had the data been properly analyzed a lower NOAEL of 0.014 mg/kg-day would have been found, they said.

The Coulston study did not undergo peer review but still was used by the EPA for risk assessments throughout much of the 1980′s and 1990′s, the University of Washington researchers reported.

The researchers concluded: “During that period, EPA allowed chlorpyrifos to be registered for multiple residential uses that were later cancelled to reduce potential health impacts to children and infants. Had appropriate analyses been employed in the evaluation of this study, it is likely that many of those registered uses of chlorpyrifos would not have been authorized by EPA. This work demonstrates that reliance by pesticide regulators on research results that have not been properly peer-reviewed may needlessly endanger the public.”

Widely used

Commonly known as the active ingredient in the brand name Lorsban, chlorpyrifos insecticides were introduced by Dow Chemical in 1965 and have been used widely in agricultural settings. The largest agricultural market for chlorpyrifos is corn but the pesticide is also used by farmers growing soybeans, fruit and nut trees, Brussels sprouts, cranberries, and cauliflower, as well as other row crops. Residues of the chemical are commonly found in food. Non-agricultural uses include golf courses, turf, green houses, and utilities.

Despite the science promoted by Dow, independent scientific research has shown mounting evidence of the dangers of chlorpyrifos, particularly to young children. Scientists have found that prenatal exposures to chlorpyrifos are associated with lower birth weight, reduced IQ, the loss of working memory, attention disorders, and delayed motor development.

The American Academy for Pediatrics, which represents more than 66,000 pediatricians and pediatric surgeons, has warned that continued use of the chemical puts developing fetuses, infants, children and pregnant women at great risk.

Chlorpyrifos is so dangerous that the European Food Safety Authority has stated that there is no safe exposure level.

The EPA reached an agreement with Dow in 2000 to phase out all residential uses of the chemical because of research showing the chemical is dangerous to the developing brains of babies and young children. In 2012, chlorpyrifos was banned from use around schools.

In February 2020, after pressure from consumer, medical, scientific groups and in face of growing calls for bans around the world, Corteva AgriScience, a successor corporation to a merger of Dow and DuPont, said it would phase out production of chlorpyrifos. The chemical, however, remains legal for other companies to make and sell.

Human subjects

The study that is the subject of the new paper by the University of Washington researchers was overseen in 1971 by the Albany Medical College’s Institute of Experimental Pathology and Toxicology. The study included 16 healthy adult male inmates from a pool of volunteers at Clinton Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in Dannemora, New York.

The volunteers were randomized into four experimental groups, including one control group, whose members received a daily placebo. The members of the three other groups received daily chlorpyrifos treatments at three different doses.  The study took place over 63 days.

The new analysis found several problems with the study, including the omission of eight valid baseline measurements for one of the three treatment groups.

“Such an omission of valid data without justification is a form of data falsification that violates all standard codes of ethical research practice and is classified as outright research misconduct,” the University of Washington researchers concluded.

The researchers said that chlorpyrifos “passed through the regulatory process without much debate,” even though there was “growing evidence that it might pose a health hazard in residential environments.”

“The Coulston Study misled regulators by omitting valid data,” and “may have adversely impacted public health” for several years, the University of Washington paper concludes.

U.S. regulators relied for years on flawed pesticide data provided by Dow Chemical

Print Email Share Tweet

For years, U.S. regulators relied on falsified data provided by Dow Chemical to allow unsafe levels of the chemical chlorpyrifos into American homes, according to a new analysis from University of Washington researchers.

The analysis reexamines work from the 1970s sponsored by Dow and submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to guide the agency in establishing what scientists refer to as a “no-observed-adverse-effect-level” or NOAEL. Such thresholds are used to determine what types of use and at what level a chemical exposure can be allowed and still be considered “safe.”

According to the new analysis, published online July 3 in the journal Environmental International, the inaccurate findings were the result of a chlorpyrifos dosing study conducted by researcher Frederick Coulston and colleagues from the Albany Medical College in the early 1970s for Dow.

The authors of the new paper reexamining that prior work are Lianne Sheppard, Seth McGrew and Richard Fenske of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences, School of Public Health at the University of Washington.

While the study was authored by the Coulston group, the analysis was completed by a Dow statistician and concluded that 0.03 mg/kg-day was the chronic NOAEL level for chlorpyrifos in humans. But the new analysis by the University of Washington researchers found that wildly overstated the margin of safety. Had the data been properly analyzed a lower NOAEL of 0.014 mg/kg-day would have been found, they said.

The Coulston study did not undergo peer review but still was used by the EPA for risk assessments throughout much of the 1980′s and 1990′s, the University of Washington researchers reported.

The researchers concluded: “During that period, EPA allowed chlorpyrifos to be registered for multiple residential uses that were later cancelled to reduce potential health impacts to children and infants. Had appropriate analyses been employed in the evaluation of this study, it is likely that many of those registered uses of chlorpyrifos would not have been authorized by EPA. This work demonstrates that reliance by pesticide regulators on research results that have not been properly peer-reviewed may needlessly endanger the public.”

Widely used

Commonly known as the active ingredient in the brand name Lorsban, chlorpyrifos insecticides were introduced by Dow Chemical in 1965 and have been used widely in agricultural settings. The largest agricultural market for chlorpyrifos is corn but the pesticide is also used by farmers growing soybeans, fruit and nut trees, Brussels sprouts, cranberries, and cauliflower, as well as other row crops. Residues of the chemical are commonly found in food. Non-agricultural uses include golf courses, turf, green houses, and utilities.

Despite the science promoted by Dow, independent scientific research has shown mounting evidence of the dangers of chlorpyrifos, particularly to young children. Scientists have found that prenatal exposures to chlorpyrifos are associated with lower birth weight, reduced IQ, the loss of working memory, attention disorders, and delayed motor development.

The American Academy for Pediatrics, which represents more than 66,000 pediatricians and pediatric surgeons, has warned that continued use of the chemical puts developing fetuses, infants, children and pregnant women at great risk.

Chlorpyrifos is so dangerous that the European Food Safety Authority has stated that there is no safe exposure level.

The EPA reached an agreement with Dow in 2000 to phase out all residential uses of the chemical because of research showing the chemical is dangerous to the developing brains of babies and young children. In 2012, chlorpyrifos was banned from use around schools.

In February 2020, after pressure from consumer, medical, scientific groups and in face of growing calls for bans around the world, Corteva AgriScience, a successor corporation to a merger of Dow and DuPont, said it would phase out production of chlorpyrifos. The chemical, however, remains legal for other companies to make and sell.

Human subjects

The study that is the subject of the new paper by the University of Washington researchers was overseen in 1971 by the Albany Medical College’s Institute of Experimental Pathology and Toxicology. The study included 16 healthy adult male inmates from a pool of volunteers at Clinton Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in Dannemora, New York.

The volunteers were randomized into four experimental groups, including one control group, whose members received a daily placebo. The members of the three other groups received daily chlorpyrifos treatments at three different doses.  The study took place over 63 days.

The new analysis found several problems with the study, including the omission of eight valid baseline measurements for one of the three treatment groups.

“Such an omission of valid data without justification is a form of data falsification that violates all standard codes of ethical research practice and is classified as outright research misconduct,” the University of Washington researchers concluded.

The researchers said that chlorpyrifos “passed through the regulatory process without much debate,” even though there was “growing evidence that it might pose a health hazard in residential environments.”

“The Coulston Study misled regulators by omitting valid data,” and “may have adversely impacted public health” for several years, the University of Washington paper concludes.

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

Print Email Share Tweet

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.

How Tamar Haspel Misleads Readers of the Washington Post

Print Email Share Tweet

Tamar Haspel is a freelance journalist who has been writing monthly food columns for the Washington Post since October 2013. Her columns frequently promote and defend pesticide industry products, while she also receives payments to speak at industry-aligned events, and sometimes from industry groups. This practice of journalists receiving payments from industry groups, known as “buckraking,” raises questions about objectivity.

A review of Haspel’s Washington Post columns turns up further concerns. In multiple instances, Haspel failed to disclose or fully describe the industry connections of her sources, relied on industry-slanted studies, cherry-picked facts to back up industry positions, or cited industry propaganda uncritically. See our source review for documentation. Haspel has not yet responded to inquiries for this article.

Agrichemical funding conflicts of interest

“I speak and moderate panels and debates often, and it’s work I’m paid for,” Haspel wrote in a 2015 online chat hosted by the Washington Post, in response to a question about whether she receives money from industry sources. Haspel said she discloses her speaking engagements on her personal website, but she does not disclose which companies or groups fund her, or what amounts they give.

When asked how much money she has taken from the agrichemical industry and its front groups, Haspel tweeted, “Since any group believing biotech has something to offer is a ‘front group,’ plenty!”

According to the Washington Post Standards and Ethics, reporters cannot accept gifts, free trips, preferential treatment or free admissions from news sources, and “should make every effort to remain in the audience, to stay off the stage, to report the news, not to make the news.” These rules do not apply to freelancers however, and the paper leaves it up to editors to decide.

Haspel’s editor Joe Yonan has said he is comfortable with Haspel’s approach to paid speaking engagements and finds it a “reasonable balance.”

For more information:

Pro GMO beat

Haspel began writing about genetically engineered foods in March 2013 in the Huffington Post (“Go Frankenfish! Why We Need GM Salmon”). Her final series of articles for Huffington Post focused favorably on agrichemical industry products. She debunked the risks of glyphosate and GMO animal feed, argued against GMO labeling campaigns, and promoted the pesticide industry-funded website GMO Answers. That site was part of a multi-million dollar public relations initiative to combat consumer concerns about genetically engineered foods in the wake of campaigns to label GMOs.

HuffPo July 2013: An example of how Haspel has promoted industry sources uncritically. More examples below. 

Haspel launched her monthly “Unearthed” food column in the Washington Post soon afterward, in October 2013, with an article about “what is and isn’t true” about GMOs. She promised to “dig deep to try and figure out what’s true and what isn’t in the debate about our food supply.” She advised readers to figure out “whom you can trust” in the GMO debate and identified several groups that did not pass her impartiality test; the Union of Concerned Scientists was among them.

Haspel’s next column, “GMO common ground: Where supporters and opponents agree,” provided a broad range of perspectives from public interest as well as industry sources. However, in subsequent columns, Haspel seldom quoted public interest groups and devoted far less space to public health sources than to industry-connected sources. She often quotes experts in “risk perception” who tend to downplay public health and safety concerns. In several instances, Haspel failed to disclose or fully describe industry ties to sources when reporting on GMOs, pesticides or organic foods.

Industry-sourced ‘food movement’ column

An example that illustrates problems of bias is Haspel’s January 2016 column, “The surprising truth about the food movement.” She argues that people who care about genetic engineering or other aspects of food production – the “food movement” – are a marginal part of the population. She included no interviews with consumer, health, environmental or justice groups that consider themselves part of the food movement.

Haspel sourced the column with two industry-funded spin groups, the International Food Information Council and Ketchum, the public relations firm that runs the pesticide industry-funded website GMO Answers. While she described Ketchum as a PR firm that “works extensively with the food industry,” Haspel did not disclose the background: that Ketchum was hired by a trade association to change consumer views of GMO foods. She also did she mention Ketchum’s scandalous history of flacking for Russia and conducting espionage against environmental groups.

A third source for her column was a two-year old phone survey conducted by William Hallman, a public perception analyst from Rutgers who reported that most people don’t care about GMO labeling. A year earlier, Hallman and Haspel had appeared together on a government-sponsored panel to discuss GMOs with Eric Sachs of Monsanto.

Collaborations with industry spin groups

Tamar Haspel’s affinity for, and collaborations with, key players in the agrichemical industry’s public relations efforts raise further concerns about her objectivity.

The above promotional quote appears on the homepage of STATS/Sense About Science, describing STATS as “invaluable” to her reporting. Other journalists have described STATS as a product-defense “disinformation campaign” that uses tobacco tactics to manufacture doubt about chemical risk. STATs played a key role in the “hardball politics of chemical regulation” and the industry’s efforts to discredit health concerns about bisphenol-A, according to reporting in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

A 2016 story in The Intercept described the tobacco ties of STATS and Sense About Science, which merged in 2014, and the role these groups play in pushing industry views about science. A 2015 public relations strategy document named Sense About Science among the “industry partners” Monsanto planned to engage in its campaign to “orchestrate outcry” against the World Health Organization’s cancer research agency to discredit a report about the carcinogenicity of glyphosate.

Agrichemical industry spin events

In June 2014, Haspel was a “faculty” member at a pesticide industry-funded messaging training event called the Biotech Literacy Project Boot Camp. The event was organized by the Genetic Literacy Project and Academics Review, two industry front groups Monsanto also identified as “industry partners” in its 2015 PR plan.

Genetic Literacy Project is a former program of STATS, and Academics Review was set up with the help of Monsanto to discredit industry critics while keeping corporate fingerprints hidden, according to emails obtained through public records requests.

The boot camp Haspel attended was aimed at “reframing the food safety and GMO debate,” according to the agenda. Paul Thacker reported about the event in The Progressive, “Industry has also secretly funded a series of conferences to train scientists and journalists to frame the debate over GMOs and the toxicity of glyphosate …  In emails, organizers referred to these conferences as biotech literacy bootcamps, and journalists are described as ‘partners.'”

Academics familiar with corporate spin tactics reviewed the boot camp documents at Thacker’s request. “These are distressing materials,” said Naomi Oreskes, professor of the history of science at Harvard University. “It is clearly intended to persuade people that GMO crops are beneficial, needed, and not sufficiently risky to justify labeling.” Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University, said, “If journalists attend conferences that they are paid to attend, they need to be deeply suspicious from the get-go.”

Cami Ryan, a boot camp staffer who later went on to work for Monsanto, noted in the conference evaluation that participants wanted, “More Haspel-ish, Ropeik-ish sessions.” David Ropeik is a risk perception consultant whose clients include Bayer and other chemical companies, and whom Haspel used as a source in a column she wrote about glyphosate.

Industry funded biotech messaging conferences

In May 2015, Haspel presented at a “biotechnology literacy and communications day” at the University of Florida. The event was organized by Kevin Folta, a professor tied in with agrichemical industry public relations and lobbying efforts. Folta had even included Haspel in a proposal he sent to Monsanto seeking funding for events he described as “a solution to the biotech communications problem.” The problem, Folta said, was due to activists’ “control of public perception” and their “strong push for clunky and unnecessary food labeling efforts.” On Page 4, Folta described an event that would feature UF professors along with “industry representatives, journalist experts in science communication (e.g. Tamar Haskel [sic], Amy Harmon), and experts in public risk perception and psychology (e.g. Dan Kahan).”

Monsanto funded the proposal, calling it “a great 3rd-party approach to developing the kind of advocacy we’re looking to develop.” (The money was later donated to a food pantry after the funding source became public.)

In April 2015, Folta wrote to Haspel with details about the messaging training event, “We’ll cover the costs and an honorarium, whatever that takes. The audience will be scientists, physicians and other professionals that need to learn how to talk to the public.”

Haspel responded, “I am definitely in,” and she relayed an anecdote from another recent “science communication” panel that had changed somebody’s view about Monsanto. “It is possible to make headway, but I’m convinced it’s by person-to-person interactions,” Haspel wrote to Folta.

The archived agenda for the Florida communication day listed the speakers as Haspel, Folta, three other UF professors, Monsanto employee Vance Crowe and representatives from Biofortified and Center for Food Integrity (two more groups Monsanto referred to as industry partners in its PR strategy to defend glyphosate). In another email to Folta, Haspel enthused about meeting Crowe, “Very much looking forward to this. (I’ve wanted to meet Vance Crowe – very glad he’ll be there.)”

Ethics and disclosure questions

In September 2015, The New York Times featured Folta in a front-page story by Eric Lipton about how industry groups relied on academics to fight the GMO labeling war. Lipton reported on Folta’s fundraising appeal to Monsanto, and that Folta had been publicly claiming he had no associations with Monsanto.

Haspel wrote to Folta a few months later, “I am very sorry for what you’ve gone through, and it’s distressing when mean-spirited, partisan attacks overshadow the real issues — both on the science and on the transparency, both of which are so important.” Haspel mentioned she was working with the National Press Foundation to develop better conflict of interest standards for freelance journalists.

Haspel was a 2015 fellow for the National Press Foundation (a group partly funded by corporations, including Bayer and DuPont). In an article she wrote for NPF about ethics for freelancers, Haspel discussed the importance of disclosure and described her criteria for speaking at events only if non-industry funders and diverse views are involved — criteria not met by either of the biotech literacy events. The disclosure page on her website does not accurately disclose the conveners and funders of the 2014 biotech literacy boot camp. Haspel has not responded to questions about the biotech literacy events.

Source review: misleading reporting about pesticides

A source review of three of Tamar Haspel’s Washington Post columns on the topic of pesticides found multiple concerning examples of undisclosed industry-connected sources, data omissions and out-of-context reporting that served to bolster pesticide industry messaging that pesticides are not a concern and organic is not much of a benefit. The source review covers these three columns:

  • “Is organic better for your health? A look at milk, meat, eggs, produce and fish” (April 7, 2014)
  • “It’s the chemical Monsanto depends on. How dangerous is it?” (October 2015)
  • “The truth about organic produce and pesticides” (May 21, 2018)

Relied on industry-connected sources; failed to disclose industry ties

In all three of the columns cited in this source review, Haspel failed to disclose pesticide industry connections of key sources who downplayed the risk of pesticides. None of the following industry connections were mentioned in her columns as of August 2018 when this review was published.

In her 2018 report on the “truth about organic produce and pesticides,” Haspel gave readers “an idea of the magnitude of risk” from cumulative pesticide exposures by citing a study that equated the risk of consuming pesticides from food to drinking wine. Haspel did not disclose that four of five authors of the study were employed by Bayer Crop Sciences, one of the world’s largest pesticide manufacturers.

She also did not inform her readers that the original study contained a glaring error that was later corrected (even though her column linked to both the original and corrected study). The study first equated pesticide exposures from food as equal to drinking one glass of wine every seven years. The authors later corrected that to one glass of wine every three months. That was only one of several errors in the paper, according to a letter to the journal from scientists who described the study as “overly simplistic and seriously misleading.”

To dismiss concerns about the synergistic effects of exposure to multiple pesticides, Haspel cited another study from the only non-Bayer affiliated author of the flawed wine-comparison study. And she cited “a 2008 report” that “made the same assessment.” Authors of that 2008 report included Alan Boobis and Angelo Moretto, two academics who were caught in a conflict of interest scandal in 2016 because they chaired a UN panel that exonerated glyphosate of cancer risk at the same time as they held leadership positions in the International Life Sciences Institute, a nonprofit group that received substantial donations from the pesticide industry.

In her 2015 column about the risk of glyphosate, the “chemical Monsanto depends on,” Haspel quoted two sources with pesticide industry connections she didn’t disclose. The sources were Keith Solomon, a toxicologist who wrote papers about glyphosate that were funded by Monsanto (and whom Monsanto was promoting as a source); and David Ropeik, a risk perception consultant who has a PR firm whose clients include Dow, DuPont and Bayer.

In her 2014 column about whether pesticide residues in food pose a health risk, Haspel introduced doubt about the health risks of organophosphates, a class of pesticides linked to neurological damage in children. She cited a review that found “the epidemiological studies did not strongly implicate any particular pesticide as being causally related to adverse neurological developmental outcomes in infants and children.” The lead author was Carol Burns, a scientist at Dow Chemical Company, one of the country’s largest manufacturers of organophosphates; the connection was not disclosed.

That column also used industry go-to toxicologist Carl Winter as a source vouching for the safety of pesticide residues in food, based on EPA risk assessments. Monsanto was promoting Winter’s work at that time in talking points, and Winter also served on the science advisory board of the Monsanto-funded group American Council on Science and Health, which bragged in a blog post a few months earlier about anti-organic press coverage that quoted their guy, “ACSH advisor Dr. Carl Winter.”

Misled with out-of-context reporting

In her 2014 column about organic food, Haspel used a 2012 paper by the American Academy of Pediatrics out of context to reinforce her argument that eating organic might not offer health benefits, and she did not inform readers of the full scope of the study or its conclusions. The AAP paper reported a wide range of scientific evidence suggesting harm to children from both acute and chronic exposures to various pesticides. It concluded, “Children’s exposures to pesticides should be limited as much as possible.” The report cited evidence of a “drastic immediate decrease in urinary excretion of pesticide metabolites” in children eating an organic diet. AAP also issued policy recommendations to reduce children’s exposure to pesticides.

Haspel left out all that context and reported only that the AAP report, “noted the correlation between organophosphate exposure and neurological issues that had been found in some studies but concluded that it was still ‘unclear’ that reducing exposure by eating organic would be ‘clinically relevant.'”

In her 2018 column about organic produce, Haspel misleadingly reported that the pesticide chlorpyrifos “has been the subject a battle between environmental groups, which want it banned, and the EPA, which doesn’t” — but she did not inform readers of a key point: that the EPA had recommended banning chlorpyrifos due to mounting evidence that prenatal exposure could have lasting effects on children’s brains. The agency reversed course only after the Trump EPA interfered.

Haspel sourced her misleading “environmental groups vs EPA” comparison with a link to a New York Times documents page that provided no context about the EPA decision, rather than linking to the NYT story that reported on corporate influence behind the EPA decision to allow chlorpyrifos.

Relied on sources who agree with each other 

In her 2018 column, Haspel set up her argument that pesticide exposures in food are not much of a concern with a dubious reporting tactic she has used on other occasions: citing agreement among many unnamed sources.

In this case, Haspel reported that pesticide levels in food “are very low” and “you shouldn’t be concerned about them,” according to U.S. government agencies “(along with many toxicologists I’ve spoken with over the years).” Although she reported that “not everyone has faith” in those government assessments, Haspel cited no disagreeing sources and ignored entirely the American Academy of Pediatrics report that recommended reducing children’s exposures to pesticides, which she cited out of context in her 2014 column. In her 2015 column about glyphosate, she again quoted like-minded sources, reporting that “every” scientist she spoke with said that, until recent questions arose, “glyphosate had been noted for its safety.”

Missed relevant data 

Haspel missed plenty of relevant data in her “get to the bottom of it” reporting on the risks of pesticides and the benefits of organic. Recent statements by prominent health groups and science she missed include:

  • January 2018 study by Harvard researchers published in in JAMA Internal Medicine reporting that women who regularly consumed pesticide-treated fruits and vegetables had lower success rates getting pregnant with IVF, while women who ate organic food had better outcomes;
  • January 2018 commentary in JAMA by pediatrician Phillip Landrigan urging physicians to encourage their patients to eat organic;
  • February 2017 report prepared for the European Parliament outlining the health benefits of eating organic food and practicing organic agriculture;
  • 2016 European Parliament Science and Technology Option Assessment recommended reducing dietary intake of pesticides, especially for women and children;
  • 2012 President’s Cancer Panel report recommends reducing children’s exposure to cancer-causing and cancer-promoting environmental exposures;
  • 2012 paper and policy recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics recommending reducing children’s exposure to pesticides as much as possible;
  • 2009 statement by the American Public Health Association, “Opposition to the use of hormone growth promoters in beef and dairy cattle production”;
  • 2002 review by the European Union’s Scientific Committee on Veterinary Measures Review reporting that growth-promoting hormones in beef production pose a health risk to consumers.

More perspectives on Haspel’s reporting

SciBabe says eat your pesticides. But who is paying her?

Print Email Share Tweet

SciBabe’s bad science tries to make the pesticide industry look good.

Blogging under the name SciBabe, Yvette d’Entremont defends toxic chemicals in food products and promotes pesticides as safe. She has received funding and honoraria from a variety of companies and industry groups.

In 2017, the artificial sweetener company SPLENDA hired SciBabe to “debunk junk science” in defense of their product. SciBabe has been a featured speaker at various chemical and food industry-sponsored events such as the 2017 Atlantic Farm Women conference sponsored by CropLife and Monsanto, the 2015 Suppliers Showcase where her luncheon talk was sponsored by DuPont, and the 2016 CropLife America annual meeting where her keynote speech was sponsored by Monsanto. According to the disclosures reported for a 2017 webinar, d’Entremont serves as a consultant to SPLENDA and has received honoraria from, among others, Flavor Producers, Florida Dairy Farmers, CropLife, the American Soybean Association and the CA Beet Growers.

In interviews, SciBabe frequently cites her former job in a pesticide lab as the basis for her knowledge about pesticide safety.

Worked for a controversial pesticide company that had agreement with Monsanto to promote GMOs

Before becoming a full time blogger, Yvette d’Entremont worked as an as an analytical chemist at Amvac Chemical Corporation, which “does a booming business selling some of the world’s most dangerous pesticides,” according to a 2007 story in the Los Angeles Times:

“Amvac has fueled double-digit revenue growth through an unusual business practice: It has bought from larger companies the rights to older pesticides, many of them at risk of being banned or restricted because of safety concerns. The company has fought to keep those chemicals on the market as long as possible, hiring scientists and lawyers to do battle with regulatory agencies. Amvac’s focus on older pesticides has come at a cost to human health and the environment, according to federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and state records, regulatory investigations and a string of lawsuits. Accidents involving the company’s pesticides have led to the evacuation of neighborhoods and the poisoning of scores of field workers in California and elsewhere.”

Amvac Chemical Corporation has an exclusive agreement with Dow Chemical Corporation to sell Lorsban made with chlorpyrifos, a controversial pesticide that decades of science strongly suggests harms children’s brains. The EPA has said chlorpyrifos should be banned, but it is still widely used on apples, oranges, strawberries and broccoli, and Amvac markets it as “the right choice!” Amvac also has an agreement with Monsanto to promote Roundup Ready GMO crops.

2016 Monsanto sponsored SciBabe talk.

False statements about pesticides and GMOs, and Amvac influence

SciBabe makes false claims about the health risks and safety protocols of pesticides, GMOs and chemicals in food:

  • “We’ve proven very, very carefully that, once they get into the food supply, [pesticides] are safe for people … because we’re in such a heavily regulated environment, the odds of you getting something in your food supply that’s unsafe at this point is very, very low. I mean, extraordinarily low.” (podcast with University of Florida professor Kevin Folta)
  • Artificial sweeteners are safe with no evidence of harm. (SciBabe blog; here are facts about the health risks of aspartame)
  • For GMOs, “There are serious testing standards in place from the EPA, FDA, and USDA. GMOs are basically tested down to the last strand of DNA.” (article for Genetic Literacy Project)

SciBabe credits her former job at the Amvac lab for inspiring her to get involved as a science communicator:

  • “When I was working there, that was when I started really getting into the fray of this kind of battle that we have on the Internet with people who say there is no research done into these pesticides before the hit the market. And I’m like yes, I really just lick the vile and say it’s probably not going to kill your kids before approving it for sale – which, I promise you, that’s not how it works.” (podcast)
  • “I started the blog when I was working there, and it’s partially because I kept seeing really bad information online about pesticides.” (Popular Science Q&A)
  • “Whenever I saw the argument online that (GMOs) aren’t tested for safety, I realized in my own pesticide lab that I was working in, we were. I’m like, ‘How can these not be tested for safety when my exact job is testing for safety?’ And sometimes I spent two weeks calibrating one instrument, and I’m just one cog in a machine. And I know the other sides are just as meticulous as I am.” (Popular Science)

Front group friends

SciBabe’s work is regularly promoted by chemical industry front groups, such as the American Council on Science and Health (which has received funding from Amvac Chemical Corporation) and the Genetic Literacy Project.

The “Kevin Folta Fan Club” is a who’s who of Monsanto friends and pesticide defenders.

SciBabe is part of what she calls the “Kevin Folta Fan Club” defending the University of Florida professor who has repeatedly made false and misleading statements. The fan club photo features d’Entremont with Julie Gunlock of the Independent Women’s Forum, a Koch-funded group that partners with Monsanto to downplay fears about pesticides; pesticide propagandist Julie Kelly; and Monsanto’s social sciences lead Cami Ryan.

More on Yvette d’Entremont:

  • “SciBabe is Neither a Scientist Nor a Babe: She’s Bullshit,” Medium
  • “Response to Gawker ‘The Food Babe Blogger is Full of …,” FoodBabe
  • “SciBabe, paid by Splenda, touts its product,” by Jerry Coyne, PhD, professor at Univ. of Chicago.

Doctors, scientists recommend reducing exposure to pesticides 

Resources to learn more about pesticide risks and weak regulations that fail to protect health:

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends reducing children’s exposure to pesticides. Here is the AAP’s 2012 science position paper.

“Epidemiologic evidence demonstrates associations between early life exposure to pesticides and pediatric cancers, decreased cognitive function, and behavioral problems. Related animal toxicology studies provide supportive biological plausibility for these findings. Recognizing and reducing problematic exposures will require attention to current inadequacies in medical training, public health tracking, and regulatory action on pesticides.”

The President’s Cancer Panel Report recommends reducing children’s exposure to cancer-causing and cancer-promoting environmental exposures.

“The American people—even before they are born—are bombarded continually with myriad combinations of these dangerous exposures. The Panel urges you most strongly to use the power of your office to remove the carcinogens and other toxins from our food, water, and air that needlessly increase health care costs, cripple our Nation’s productivity, and devastate American lives.”

The President’s Cancer Panel chapter on pesticides starts on page 43:

“Nearly 1,400 pesticides have been registered (i.e., approved) by the EPA for agricultural and non-agricultural use. Exposure to these chemicals has been linked to brain/central nervous system, breast, colon, lung, ovarian (female spouses), pancreatic, kidney, testicular, and stomach cancers, as well as Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, multiple myeloma, and soft tissue sarcoma. Pesticide-exposed farmers, pesticide applicators, crop duster pilots, and manufacturers also have been found to have elevated rates of prostate cancer, melanoma, other skin cancers, and cancer of the lip.”

The 2016 European Parliament Science and Technology Option Assessment recommended reducing dietary intake of pesticides, especially for women and children.

Pesticide risk assessments “disregard evidence from epidemiological studies that show negative effects of low-level exposure to organophosphate insecticides on children’s cognitive development, despite the high costs of IQ losses to society. While the intake of fruit and vegetables should not be decreased, existing studies support the ideal of reduced dietary exposure to pesticide residues, especially among pregnant women and children.”

Journal of American Medical Association commentary by Phillip Landrigan, MD, recommends eating organic food.

  • “our current laissez-faire attitude toward the regulation of pesticides is failing us”
  • “multiple lines of evidence suggest that human fertility is on the decline and that the frequency of reproductive impairment is increasing.” These trends are “almost certainly” linked to environmental exposures to chemicals
  • See also Harvard pesticide/infertility study in JAMAHarvard researchers followed 325 women at an infertility clinic for two years and reported that women who regularly ate pesticide-treated fruits and vegetables had lower success rates getting pregnant with IVF

Consensus statement from leading scientists: Concerns over the risks of glyphosate-based herbicides and risks associated with exposure, Environmental Health Journal

Recent news on pesticides

Dow’s insecticide chlorpyrifos has been shown to harm children’s brains and EPA’s own scientists said in 2016 they could no longer vouch for safety of the pesticide in food or water, but it remains widely used in farming due to political pressure from the agrichemical industry.

A Strong Case Against a Pesticide Does Not Faze E.P.A. Under Trump, By Roni Caryn Rabin New York Times

This is what a common pesticide does to a child’s brain, By Nicholas Kristof New York Times

Monsanto says its pesticides are safe. Now, a court wants to see the proof

Print Email Share Tweet

This week’s events will mark the first time that the science used to justify certain pesticides will be analyzed under oath for all to see

This article was first published in The Guardian.

By Carey Gillam

On Monday, a federal court hearing in San Francisco will turn a public spotlight on to the science surrounding the safety of one of the world’s most widely used pesticides, a weedkilling chemical called glyphosate that has been linked to cancer and is commonly found in our food and water, even in our own bodily fluids. Given the broad health and environmental implications tied to the use of this pesticide, we would be well served to pay attention.

As the active ingredient in Monsanto’s branded Roundup and hundreds of other herbicides, glyphosate represents billions of dollars in annual revenues for Monsanto and other companies, and is prominently used by farmers as an aid in food production. It’s also favored by cities for keeping public parks and playgrounds weed free, and by homeowners who want a tidy lawn. But the chemical was deemed a probable human carcinogen by the World Health Organization’s cancer experts in 2015 in a finding that has since triggered waves of liability lawsuits against Monsanto.

Heated debates over the safety – or lack thereof – of this popular pesticide have spanned the globe and sparked propaganda warfare with each side claiming the other has misrepresented the scientific record. Cancer victims allege Monsanto has “ghost” written research reviews, unduly influenced regulators and created front groups to falsely claim glyphosate safety. Monsanto, meanwhile, asserts multiple studies by international scientists are flawed and politically motivated, and says industry studies demonstrate the product is safe when used as intended.

This week’s events will mark the first time that the body of research, some that has been gathering dust in stuffy scientific journals or confidential corporate files, will be analyzed under oath for all to see.

It is no idle exercise. Real lives are at stake in this and broader debates about pesticide risks to our health. One in every two men and one in every three women are now expected to develop cancer in their lifetimes and childhood cancers are on the rise.

In children, pesticide exposure is linked not just to pediatric cancers, but also to decreased cognitive function, and behavioral problems. In adults, pesticides are linked to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, leukemia, brain, prostate and other cancers. More than 3,000 plaintiffs suing Monsanto allege exposure to the company’s glyphosate-based Roundup caused them or their family members to develop non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Monsanto has tried to persuade US judge Vince Chhabria to throw out the litigation, and sought to keep secret the many internal documents it has been forced to turn over in discovery. But Chhabria has ordered that the hearing be video-recorded and shared publicly over the internet. And he has granted permission for plaintiffs to explore in open court such things as the ghostwriting of science as well as a controversial 1983 study that EPA scientists at the time said showed evidence of glyphosate’s cancer-causing potential.

The court has dubbed the 5-9 March events as “science week” because the only evidence to be presented will come from experts in cancer science, including epidemiologists, toxicologists and others called to analyze relevant research. There will be no crying cancer victims to tug on heart strings; just opposing sides presenting science to a judge who will decide if the lawsuits can move forward.

To bolster its defense, the company and chemical industry allies have been working to discredit cancer scientists and others who have been warning of danger. That effort was highlighted when members of the House committee on science, space and technology held a hearing in Washington on 6 February to air Monsanto’s complaints about the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s (IARC) classification of glyphosate as a probable carcinogen, and to threaten to strip funding from the scientific body.

The committee effort – effectively turning a war on cancer into a war on cancer science – was applauded by the chemical industry. Monsanto, along with lobbyist CropLife America and other agricultural organizations, has also sued California to stop environmental regulators from requiring cancer warnings on glyphosate products, and on 26 February they won an injunction blocking such a warning.

The debate over glyphosate is but the latest example of how industry efforts often focus not on scrutinizing scientific evidence of harm, but on discrediting the offending science. Last year, for instance, Dow Chemical successfully lobbied the Environmental Protection Agency leadership to ignore warnings from its own scientists (and others) about extensive research tying a profitable Dow pesticide called chlorpyrifos to brain development problems in children.

The public offering of expert testimony in San Francisco about Monsanto’s pervasive pesticide presents an important opportunity to separate the science from the spin. We all should be watching.

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.

The Rise of Anti-Women, Anti-Public Health Groups

Print Email Share Tweet

Photo©Tony Powell. 2017 Independent Women’s Forum Gala. Union Station. November 15, 2017

This article first appeared in Huffington Post.  

By Stacy Malkan

At a recent soiree at Union Station, the DC power elite gathered in an anti-public health confab dressed up as a celebration of women that should concern anyone who cares about the health and rights of women and children.

The Independent Women’s Forum drew an impressive array of Republican politicians to its annual gala sponsored by, among others, the American Chemistry Council, the tobacco company Phillip Morris, the cosmetics industry trade group, Google and the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council.

Speakers included House Speaker Paul Ryan and Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway, who won the IWF Valor Award for being a “passionate advocate for limited government” who does not embrace “the idea that being a woman is a handicap.” Conway is also an IWF board member.

So what is the Independent Women’s Forum?

IWF got its start 25 years ago as an effort to defend now-Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas as he faced sexual harassment charges. The group has since raised millions from the secretive foundations of the Koch brothers and other right-wing billionaires to carry out its mission of “increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty.”

In the world of the IWF — a group Joan Walsh described in The Nation as “the ‘feminists’ doing the Koch’s dirty work” — that means defending the freedom of corporations to sell toxic products and pollute the environment, while trying to frame that agenda as good for women and children.

E-cigarettes should be approved because of the unique biological needs of women, for example, and climate science education is too scary for students. (The e-cig letter is “standard Phillip Morris PR,” says tobacco industry expert Stan Glanz; and Greenpeace classifies IWF as a “Koch Industries climate denial front group.”)

Women can also benefit by ignoring “alarmist” concerns about toxic chemicals, according to an IWF lecture series sponsored by Monsanto.

To give you a sense of the messaging on chemicals: Moms who insist on organic food are arrogant, snobby “helicopter parents” who “need to be in control of everything when it comes to their kids, even the way food is grown and treated,” according to Julie Gunlock, director of IWF’s “Culture of Alarmism” project, as quoted in an article titled “The tyranny of the organic mommy mafia” that was written by an IWF fellow.

At the IWF gala, Gunlock posed for a photo op with Monsanto staffer Aimee Hood and Julie Kelly, who writes articles casting doubt on climate science and pesticide risk, and once even called climate hero Bill McKibben “a piece of shit.”

Gunlock and Kelly are “rock stars,” Hood tweeted.

“I’m framing this,” Monsanto employee Cami Ryan tweeted in return.

Put a frame around the whole shindig and behold the absurdity of corporate-captured politics in America, where policy leaders openly embrace an anti-women “women’s group” that equates “freedom” with eating toxic pesticides, at an event sponsored by the chemical industry, a tobacco company, an extremist group that wants to do away with a voter-elected Senate and the world’s most influential news source.

Meanwhile in the rational world

Recent science suggests that if you want to get pregnant and raise healthy children, you should reject the propaganda that groups like the Independent Women’s Forum are trying to sell.

In just the past few weeks, the Journals of the American Medical Association published a Harvard study implicating pesticide-treated foods in fertility problems, a UC San Diego study documenting huge increases in human exposure to a common pesticide, and a physician’s commentary urging people to eat organic food.

Mainstream groups have been giving similar advice for years.

In 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended reducing children’s exposure to pesticides due to a growing body of literature that links pesticides to chronic health problems in children, including behavioral problems, birth defects, asthma and cancer.

In 2009, the bipartisan President’s Cancer Panel reported: “the true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated.”

The panel urged then-President George W. Bush “most strongly to use the power of your office to remove the carcinogens and other toxins from our food, water, and air that needlessly increase health care costs, cripple our Nation’s productivity, and devastate American lives.”

Unfortunately for our nation, acting on that advice has not been possible in a political system indentured to corporate interests.

Corporate capture of health and science
For decades, pesticide corporations have manipulated science and U.S. regulatory agencies to keep the truth hidden about the health dangers of their chemicals.

The details are being revealed by hundreds of thousands of pages of industry documentsturned loose from legal discovery, whistleblowers and FOIA requests that have been examined in government hearings and by many media outlets.

For a synopsis of Monsanto’s “long-running secretive campaign to manipulate the scientific record, to sway public opinion, and to influence regulatory assessments” on its herbicide glyphosate, see this essay by my colleague Carey Gillam in Undark magazine.

As one example of government/corporate collusion: in 2015, on the Obama administration’s watch, the EPA official in charge of evaluating the cancer risk of glyphosate allegedly bragged to a Monsanto executive about helping to “kill” another agency’s cancer study, as Bloomberg reported.

Suppressing science has been a bipartisan, decades-long project. Since 1973, Monsanto has presented dubious science to claim the safety of glyphosate while EPA largely looked the other way, as Valerie Brown and Elizabeth Grossman documented for In These Times.

Brown and Grossman spent two years examining the publicly available archive of EPA documents on glyphosate, and reported:

“Glyphosate is a clear case of ‘regulatory capture’ by a corporation acting in its own financial interest while serious questions about public health remain in limbo. The record suggests that in 44 years—through eight presidential administrations—EPA management has never attempted to correct the problem. Indeed, the pesticide industry touts its forward-looking, modern technologies as it strives to keep its own research in the closet, and relies on questionable assumptions and outdated methods in regulatory toxicology.”

The only way to establish a scientific basis for evaluating glyphosate’s safety, they wrote, would be to “force some daylight between regulators and the regulated.”

Limited government means freedom to harm

In Trump’s Washington, there is no daylight at all between the corporations selling harmful products and the agencies that are supposed to regulate them.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is pushing scientists off advisory boards and stacking the EPA with political appointees connected to the oil, coal and chemical industries, many of whom are connected to climate science deniers.

As one of his first official actions, Pruitt tossed aside the recommendation of EPA’s scientists and allowed Dow Chemical to keep selling a pesticide developed as a nerve gas that is linked to brain damage in children.

“Trump’s most enduring legacy may be cancer, infertility and diminished I.Q.s for decades to come.”

“Kids are told to eat fruits and vegetables, but EPA scientists found levels of this pesticide on such foods at up to 140 times the limits deemed safe,” Nicholas Kristof wrote in a scathing NYT op-ed. “Trump’s most enduring legacy may be cancer, infertility and diminished I.Q.s for decades to come.”

Pruitt has gone so far as to put a chemical industry lobbyist in charge of a sweeping new toxics law that was supposed to regulate the chemical industry.

It’s all so outrageous – but then, it has been for a very long time.

That sweeping new toxics law, which passed last year in a hailstorm of bipartisan glory, was opposed by many environmental groups but lauded by – and reportedly written by – the American Chemistry Council.

“The $800 billion chemical industry lavishes money on politicians and lobbies its way out of effective regulation. This has always been a problem, but now the Trump administration has gone so far as to choose chemical industry lobbyists to oversee environmental protections,” as Kristof described it.

“The American Academy of Pediatrics protested the administration’s decision on the nerve gas pesticide, but officials sided with industry over doctors. The swamp won. The chemical industry lobby, the American Chemistry Council, is today’s version of Big Tobacco…”

“Some day we will look back and wonder: What were we thinking?!”

The Character of our Country

A decade ago, the Independent Women’s Forum presented its Valor Award to Nancy Brinker, founder of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the nation’s largest breast cancer organization – a group that has also drawn criticism for taking money from polluting corporations and promoting unhealthy food and toxic products.

At the 2007 IWF gala, in an acceptance speech she called “The Character of our Country,” Brinker warned that millions of lives will be lost unless America acts to avert the coming “cancer tsunami.”

But then, she said: “My friends, this is not a problem of politics. When it comes to cancer, there are no Republicans or Democrats, no liberals or conservatives.”

Rather, she said, invoking vagueness as she stood before a group that tells women not to worry about pesticides, at an event awash in corporate cash, beating cancer is a matter of summoning the will to make cancer a “national and global priority!”

But that is exactly a problem of politics. It’s about Republicans and Democrats, both of whom have let Americans down by failing to confront the chemical industry. It’s about summoning the political will to get chemicals linked to cancer, infertility and brain damage off the market and out of our food.

In the meantime, we can take the advice of science: eat organic and vote for politicians who are willing to stand up to the pesticide industry.

Q&A with Carey Gillam on Whitewash

Print Email Share Tweet

Carey Gillam’s book is available from Island Press: Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science. Whitewash received the 2018 Rachel Carson Environmental Book Award from the Society of Environmental Journalists and a 2018 Gold Medal Award from the Independent Publishers.

Based on 20 years of research and scores of internal industry documents, Whitewash is a hard-hitting investigation into the most widely used agrichemical in history. For decades glyphosate has been lauded as the chemical that’s “safe enough to drink,” but a growing body of scientific research ties glyphosate to cancers and a host of other health and environmental threats.

Whitewash is a “must-read,” says Booklist.  Kirkus Reviews calls Whitewash a “hard-hitting, eye-opening narrative,” and a “forceful argument for an agricultural regulatory environment that puts public interest above corporate profits.” The Society for Environmental Journalists book review describes Whitewash as “a gutsy, compelling read from beginning to end, especially for readers who enjoy the kind of hard-nosed, shoe-leather reporting that used to be the hallmark of great journalism.”

Q: Carey, you’ve been reporting on pesticides and Monsanto for nearly 20 years. As a journalist, why was it important to write a book about the topic? Why now?

A: Health experts around the world recognize that pesticides are a big contributor to a range of health problems suffered by people of all ages, but a handful of very powerful and influential corporations have convinced policy makers that the risks to human and environmental health are well worth the rewards that these chemicals bring in terms of fighting weeds, bugs, or plant diseases. These corporations are consolidating and becoming ever more powerful, and are using their influence to push higher and higher levels of many dangerous pesticides into our lives, including into our food system. We have lost a much-needed sense of caution surrounding these chemicals, and Monsanto’s efforts to promote increased uses of glyphosate is one of the best examples of how this corporate pursuit of profits has taken priority over protection of the public.

Q: People may not be familiar with the term “glyphosate” or even “Roundup.” What is it? Why should people care?

A: Roundup herbicide is Monsanto’s claim to fame. Well before it brought genetically engineered crops to market, Monsanto was making and selling Roundup weed killer. Glyphosate is the active ingredient—the stuff that actually kills the weeds—in Roundup. Glyphosate is also now used in hundreds of other products that are routinely applied to farm fields, lawns and gardens, golf courses, parks, and playgrounds. The trouble is that it’s not nearly as safe as Monsanto has maintained, and decades of scientific research link it to a range of diseases, including non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Monsanto has known about these risks and worked very hard to hide them.

Monsanto has known about these risks and worked very hard to hide them while promoting more and more use. Monsanto’s genetically engineered crops are all built to encourage glyphosate use. The key genetic trait Monsanto has inserted into its GMO soybeans, corn, canola, sugar beets, and other crops is a trait that allows those crops to survive being sprayed directly with glyphosate. After Monsanto introduced these “glyphosate-tolerant” crops in the mid-1990s, glyphosate use skyrocketed. Like other pesticides used in food production, glyphosate residues are commonly found in food, including cereals, snacks, honey, bread, and other products.

Q: You write that Whitewash shows we’ve forgotten the lessons of Rachel Carson and Silent Spring. What do you mean by that?

A: Carson laid out the harms associated with indiscriminate use of synthetic pesticides, and she predicted the devastation they could and would bring to our ecosystems. She also accused the chemical industry of intentionally spreading disinformation about their products. Her book was a wake-up call that spurred an environmental movement and led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. But over the decades since, the general population and certainly our politicians and regulators have clearly forgotten the need for caution and scrutiny in dealing with these pesticides and the companies that profit from them. You see a push by our political leaders for fewer regulations, for more unchecked use of glyphosate and other pesticides in our food production, while research about how these pesticides cause cancer, how they harm children’s brain development, and how they alter reproductive health all get pushed aside.

Q: You obtained industry communications and regulatory documents that reveal evidence of corporate influence in regulatory agencies like the EPA. Does the evidence you uncovered take on new significance in light of the current political climate in the US? How can people keep regulatory agencies accountable for working in the public’s best interest?

A: Yes, it’s quite clear that Monsanto and other corporate giants like Dow Chemical enjoy significant sway with regulators, the very people who are supposed to be protecting the public. The companies use their money and political power to influence regulatory decision- making as well as the scientific assessments within the regulatory agencies. If we consumers and taxpayers want to protect our children, our families, our future, we need to pay attention, educate ourselves on these issues, write and call our lawmakers, and support organizations working on our behalf to protect our health and environment. We need to be proactive on policies that protect the public, not the profits of giant corporations. Capitalism is great—the pursuit of wealth through a free marketplace provides much that is good, that is true. But when we let corporate profit agendas take precedence over the health and well- being of our people and our planet we’re sacrificing far too much.

Q: Monsanto attempted to censor and discredit you when you published stories that contradicted their business interests. What strategies can journalists—or scientists— employ when faced with this pushback? What are the stakes if they don’t?

A: Monsanto, and organizations backed by Monsanto, have certainly worked to undermine my work for many years. But I’m not alone; they’ve gone after reporters from an array of major news outlets, including the New York Times, as well as scientists, academics, and others who delve too deeply into the secrets they want to keep hidden. I see it as a badge of honor that Monsanto and others in the chemical industry feel threatened enough by our work to attack us. It’s certainly not easy, for journalists in particular, to challenge the corporate propaganda machine.

Reporters that go along with the game, repeat the talking points, and publish stories that support corporate interests are rewarded with coveted access to top executives and handed “exclusive” stories about new products or new strategies, all of which score them bonus points with editors. In contrast, reporters who go against the grain, who report on unflattering research, or who point out failures or risks of certain products often find they lose access to key corporate executives. The competition gets credit for interviews with top corporate chieftains while reporters who don’t play the game see their journalistic skills attacked and insulted and become the subject of persistent complaints by the corporate interests to their editors.

What can be done? Editors and reporters alike need to check their backbones, realize that the job of a journalist is to find the story behind the spin, to ask uncomfortable questions and to forge an allegiance only to truth and transparency. When we lose truthful independent journalism, when we’re only hearing what the powerful want heard, it’s assured that those without power will be the ones paying the price.

Q: You interviewed a huge number of people for this book, including scientists, farmers, and regulators. Is there a particular conversation or story that stands out to you?

A: I’ve interviewed thousands of people over my career, from very big-name political types to celebrities to every day men and women, and I find it’s always those who are most unassuming, those “regular folk” who grab my heart. In researching this book, the individual story that most resonated with me is that of Teri McCall, whose husband Jack suffered horribly before dying of cancer the day after Christmas in 2015. The McCall family lived a quiet and rather simple life, raising avocadoes and assorted citrus fruits on their Cambria, California farm, using no pesticides other than Roundup in their orchards. Jacks’ death from non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a type of cancer linked to glyphosate, fully devastated Teri and her children and grandchildren. She has shown so much grace and strength and she gave me so much of her time—and her tears—in telling me Jack’s story. She is a woman I truly admire.

Of course there are so many others I have learned from, who I feel for, including the     scientists who have struggled to publish research, who have been censored or worse for their findings of harm associated with glyphosate and other pesticides. And farmers—I have   so much regard for farmers generally, including each and every one interviewed for this book. The work they do to raise our food is incredibly challenging and they are on the front lines of the pesticide dangers every day.

Jaw-dropping is the best way to describe some of the documents I and others have uncovered.

Q: You’ve been immersed in this topic for years. Was there anything you found in the course of researching and writing this book that surprised you?

A: Jaw-dropping is the best way to describe some of the documents I and others have uncovered. Seeing behind the curtain, reading in their own words how corporate agents worked intentionally to manipulate science, to mislead consumers and politicians, was shocking. As a long-time journalist, I’m a bit of a hardened cynic. Still, the depth of the deception laid bare in these documents, and other documents still coming to light, is incredible.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from Whitewash?

A: A writer at the New York Times told me after reading Whitewash that she feared eating anything in her refrigerator because of the information the book provides about the range of pesticide residues found in so many food products. That definitely is not my goal, to frustrate or frighten people. But I do hope that readers will be moved to care more about how our food is produced, how we make use of dangerous synthetic pesticides not just on farms but also on schoolyards and in parks where our children play.

And I hope they will want to be engaged in the larger discussion and debate about how we build a future that adequately balances the risks and rewards associated with these pesticides. As Whitewash shows, the current system is designed to pump up corporate profits much more than it is to promote long-term environmental and food production sustainability. There are many powerful forces at work to keep the status quo, to continue to push dangerous pesticides, almost literally down our throats. It’s up to the rest of us to push back.

Carey Gillam is a veteran journalist, researcher, and writer with more than 25 years of experience covering corporate America. A former senior correspondent for Reuters’ international news service, Gillam digs deep into the big business of food and agriculture. Carey is also the research director of U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit organization that investigates the risks associated with the corporate food system, and the food industry’s practices and influence on public policy.