New FDA Report on Pesticides in Fruits and Vegetables Adds to Growing Public Health Concerns
By Carey Gillam
Last month the Food & Drug Administration published its latest annual analysis of the levels of pesticide residues that contaminate the fruits and veggies and other foods we Americans routinely put on our dinner plates. The fresh data adds to growing consumer concern and scientific debate over how pesticide residues in food may contribute – or not – to illness, disease and reproductive problems.
Over 55 pages of data, charts and graphs, the FDA's "Pesticide Residue Monitoring Program" report also provides a rather unappetizing example of the degree to which U.S. farmers have come to rely on synthetic insecticides, fungicides and herbicides in growing our food.
We learn, for instance, in reading the latest report, that traces of pesticides were found in 84 percent of domestic samples of fruits, and 53 percent of vegetables, as well as 42 percent of grains and 73 percent of food samples simply listed as "other." The samples were drawn from around the country, including from California, Texas, Kansas, New York and Wisconsin.
Roughly 94 percent of grapes, grape juice and raisins tested positive for pesticide residues as did 99 percent of strawberries, 88 percent of apples and apple juice, and 33 percent of rice products, according to the FDA data.
Imported fruits and vegetables actually showed a lower prevalence of pesticides, with 52 percent of fruits and 46 percent of vegetables from abroad testing positive for pesticides. Those samples came from more than 40 countries, including Mexico, China, India and Canada.
We also learn that for the most recently reported sampling, among the hundreds of different pesticides, the FDA found traces of the long-banned insecticide DDT in food samples, as well as chlorpyrifos, 2,4-D and glyphosate. DDT is linked to breast cancer, infertility and miscarriage, while chlorpyrifos – another insecticide – has been scientifically shown to cause neurodevelopmental problems in young children.
Chlorpyrifos is so dangerous that the European Food Safety Authority has recommended a ban of the chemical in Europe, finding that there is no safe exposure level. The herbicides 2,4-D and glyphosate are both linked to cancers and other health problems as well.
Thailand recently said it was banning glyphosate and chlorpyrifos due to the scientifically established risks of these pesticides.
Despite the prevalence of pesticides found in U.S. foods, the FDA, along with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), assert that pesticide residues in food are really nothing to worry about. Amid heavy lobbying by the agrichemical industry the EPA has actually supported continued use of glyphosate and chlorpyrifos in food production.
The regulators echo the words of Monsanto executives and others in the chemical industry by insisting that pesticide residues pose no threat to human health as long as the levels of each type of residue falls under a "tolerance" level set by the EPA.
In the most recent FDA analysis, only 3.8 percent of domestic foods had residue levels that were considered illegally high, or "violative." For imported foods, 10.4 percent of the foods sampled were violative, according to the FDA.
What the FDA did not say, and what regulatory agencies routinely avoid saying publicly, is that the tolerance levels for certain pesticides have risen over the years as the companies that sell the pesticides request higher and higher legal limits. The EPA has approved several increases allowed for glyphosate residues in food, for instance. As well, the agency often makes the determination that it need not comply with a legal requirement that states the EPA "shall apply an additional tenfold margin of safety for infants and children" in setting the legal levels for pesticide residues. The EPA has overridden that requirement in the setting of many pesticide tolerances, saying no such extra margin of safety is needed to protect children.
The bottom line: The higher the EPA sets the "tolerance" allowed as the legal limit, the lower the possibility that regulators will have to report "violative" residues in our food. As a result, the U.S. routinely allows higher levels of pesticide residues in food than other developed nations. For example, the legal limit for the weed killer glyphosate on an apple is 0.2 parts per million (ppm) in the U.S. but only half that level – 0.1 ppm – is allowed on an apple in the European Union. As well, the U.S. allows residues of glyphosate on corn at 5 ppm, while the EU allows only 1 ppm.
As legal limits rise for pesticide residues in food, many scientists have been increasingly raising alarms about the risks of regular consumption of the residues, and the lack of regulatory consideration of the potential cumulative impacts of consuming an array of bug and weed killers with every meal.
A team of Harvard scientists are calling for in-depth research about potential links between disease and consumption of pesticide as they estimate that more than 90 percent of people in the U.S. have pesticide residues in their urine and blood due to consumption of pesticide-laced foods. A study connected to Harvard found that dietary pesticide exposure within a "typical" range was associated both with problems women had getting pregnant and delivering live babies.
Additional studies have found other health problems tied to dietary exposures to pesticides, including to glyphosate. Glyphosate is the most widely used herbicide in the world and is the active ingredient in Monsanto's branded Roundup and other weed killing products.
Pesticide Industry Push Back
But as the concerns mount, agrichemical industry allies are pushing back. This month a group of three researchers with long-standing close ties to the companies that sell agricultural pesticides released a report seeking to soothe consumer worries and discount the scientific research.
The report, which was issued Oct. 21, stated that "there is no direct scientific or medical evidence indicating that typical exposure of consumers to pesticide residues poses any health risk. Pesticide residue data and exposure estimates typically demonstrate that food consumers are exposed to levels of pesticide residues that are several orders of magnitude below those of potential health concern."
Not surprisingly, the three authors of the report are closely tied to the agrichemical industry. One of the report's authors is Steve Savage, an agrichemical industry consultant and former DuPont employee. Another is Carol Burns, a former scientist for Dow Chemical and current consultant for Cortevia Agriscience, a spin-off of DowDuPont. The third author is Carl Winter, chair of the Department of Food Science and Technology at the University of California at Davis. The university has received approximately $2 million a year from the agrichemical industry, according to a university researcher, though the accuracy of that figure has not been established.
The authors took their report directly to Congress, holding three different presentations in Washington, DC, designed to promote their message of pesticide safety for use in "media food safety stories, and consumer advice regarding which foods consumers should (or should not) consume."
The pro-pesticide sessions were held at the office buildings for members of Congress and, appropriately it seems, at the headquarters for CropLife America, the lobbyist for the agrichemical industry.
Reposted with permission from our media associate U.S. Right to Know.
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By Jacob L. Steenwyk and Antonis Rokas
From the mythical minotaur to the mule, creatures created from merging two or more distinct organisms – hybrids – have played defining roles in human history and culture. However, not all hybrids are as fantastic as the minotaur or as dependable as the mule; in fact, some of them cause human diseases.
When Looking Through a Microscope Isn’t Close Enough.<p>For the last few years, <a href="http://www.rokaslab.org/" target="_blank">our team at Vanderbilt University</a>, <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/lab/Gustavo-Goldman-Lab" target="_blank">Gustavo Goldman's team at São Paulo University in Brazil</a> and many other collaborators around the world have been collecting samples of fungi from patients infected with different species of <em>Aspergillus</em> molds. One of the species we are particularly interested in is <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/rwgn.2001.0082" target="_blank"><em>Aspergillus nidulans</em>, a relatively common and generally harmless fungus</a>. Clinical laboratories typically identify the species of <em>Aspergillus</em> causing the infection by examining cultures of the fungi under the microscope. The problem with this approach is that very closely related species of <em>Aspergillus</em> tend to look very similar in their broad morphology or physical appearance when viewing them through a microscope.</p><p>Interested in examining the varying abilities of different <em>A. nidulans</em> strains to cause disease, we decided to analyze their total genetic content, or genomes. What we saw came as a total surprise. We had not collected <em>A. nidulans</em> but <em>Aspergillus latus</em>, a close relative of <em>A. nidulans</em> and, as we were to soon find out, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2020.04.071" target="_blank">a hybrid species that evolved through the fusion of the genomes</a> of two other <em>Aspergillus</em> species: <em>Aspergillus spinulosporus</em> and an unknown close relative of <em>Aspergillus quadrilineatus</em>. Thus, we realized not only that these patients harbored infections from an entirely different species than we thought they were, but also that this species was the first ever <em>Aspergillus</em> hybrid known to cause human infections.</p>
Several Different Fungal Hybrids Cause Human Disease.<p>Hybrid fungi that can cause infections in humans are well known to occur in several different lineages of single-celled fungi known as yeasts. Notable examples include multiple different species of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/yea.3242" target="_blank">yeast hybrids</a> that cause the human diseases <a href="https://rarediseases.info.nih.gov/diseases/6218/cryptococcosis" target="_blank">cryptococcosis</a> and <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/fungal/diseases/candidiasis/index.html" target="_blank">candidiasis</a>. Although pathogenic yeast hybrids are well known, our discovery that the <em>A. latus</em> pathogen is a hybrid is a first for molds that cause disease in humans.</p>
(Left) Candida yeasts live on parts of the human body. Imbalance of microbes on the body can allow these yeasts, some of which are hybrids, to grow and cause infection. (Right) Cryptococcus yeasts, including ones that are hybrids, can cause life-threatening infections in primarily immunocompromised people. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008315" target="_blank">Why certain <em>Aspergillus</em> species are so deadly</a> while others are harmless remains unknown. This may in part be because <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fbr.2007.02.007" target="_blank">combinations of traits, rather than individual traits</a>, underlie organisms' ability to cause disease. So why then are hybrids frequently associated with human disease? Hybrids inherit genetic material from both parents, which may result in new combinations of traits. This may make them more similar to one parent in some of their characteristics, reflect both parents in others or may differ from both in the rest. It is precisely this mix and match of traits that hybrids have inherited from their parental species that <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/14/science/14creatures.html" target="_blank">facilitates their evolutionary success</a>, including their ability to cause disease.</p>
The Evolutionary Origin of an Aspergillus Hybrid.<p>Multiple evolutionary paths can lead to the emergence of hybrids. One path is through mating, just as the horse and donkey mate to create a mule. Another path is through the merging or fusion of genetic material from cells of different species.</p><p>It is this second path that appears to have been taken by our fungus. <em>A. latus</em> appears to have two of almost everything compared to its parental species: twice the genome size, twice the total number of genes and so on. But unlike other hybrids, which are often sterile like the mule, we found that <em>A. latus</em> is capable of reproducing both asexually and sexually.</p><p>But how distinct were the parents of <em>A. latus</em>? By comparing the parts contributed by each parent in the <em>A. latus</em> genome, we estimate that its parents are approximately 93% genetically similar, which is about as related as we humans are with lemurs. In other words, <em>A. latus</em>, an agent of infectious disease, is the fungal equivalent of a human-lemur hybrid.</p>
How A. Latus Differs From its Parents.<p>Elucidating the identity of closely related fungal pathogens and how they differ from each other in infection-relevant characteristics is a key step toward reducing the burden of fungal disease. For example, we found that <em>A. latus</em> was three times more resistant than <em>A. nidulans</em>, the species it was originally identified as using microscopy-based methods, to one of the most common antifungal drugs, <a href="https://www.drugbank.ca/drugs/DB00520" target="_blank">caspofungin</a>. This result provides a clear example of the potential importance of accurate identification of the <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogen causing an infection.</p><p>We also examined how <em>A. latus</em> and <em>A. nidulans</em> interact with cells from our immune system. We found that immune cells were less efficient at combating <em>A. latus</em> compared to <em>A. nidulans</em>, suggesting the hybrid fungus may be trickier for our immune systems to identify and destroy.</p><p>In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, our quest to understand <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogens is becoming more urgent. Growing evidence suggests that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/myc.13096" target="_blank">a fraction of COVID-19 patients are also infected with <em>Aspergillus</em>.</a> More worrying is that these <a href="https://doi.org/10.3201/eid2607.201603" target="_blank">secondary <em>Aspergillus</em> infections</a> can worsen the clinical outcomes for those infected with the novel coronavirus. That being said, we stress that little is known about <em>Aspergillus</em> infections in COVID-19 patients due to a lack of systematic testing, and none of the infections identified so far appear to have been caused by hybrids.</p><p>So, when it comes to hybrids, some are fantastic (the minotaur), some are helpful (the mule) and some are dangerous (<em>Aspergillus latus</em>). Understanding more about the biology of <em>Aspergillus latus</em> may help in our understanding of how microbial pathogens arise and how to best prevent and combat their infections.</p>
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