New USDA Data Shows 85% of Foods Tested Have Pesticide Residues
By Carey Gillam
As Americans gather with their families for Thanksgiving this week, new government data offers a potentially unappetizing assessment of the U.S. food supply—Residues of many types of bug-killing pesticides, fungicides and weed killing chemicals have been found in roughly 85 percent of thousands of foods tested.
Data released last week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) shows varying levels of pesticide residues in everything from mushrooms to potatoes and grapes to green beans. One sample of strawberries contained residues of 20 pesticides, according to the Pesticide Data Program report issued this month by the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service. The report is the 25th annual such compilation of residue data for the agency, and covered sampling the USDA did in 2015.
Notably, the agency said only 15 percent of the 10,187 samples tested were free from any detectable pesticide residues. That's a marked difference from 2014, when the USDA found that more than 41 percent of samples were "clean" or showed no detectable pesticide residues. Prior years also showed roughly 40-50 percent of samples as free of detectable residues, according to USDA data. The USDA said it is not "statistically valid" to compare one year to others, however, because the mix of food sampled changes each year. Still the data shows that 2015 was similar to the years prior in that fresh and processed fruits and vegetables made up the bulk of the foods tested.
Though it might sound distasteful, the pesticide residues are nothing for people to worry about, according to the USDA. The agency said "residues found in agricultural products sampled are at levels that do not pose risk to consumers' health and are safe …"
But some scientists say there is little to no data to back up that claim, stating that regulators do not have sufficient comprehensive research regarding how consumption of residues of multiple types of pesticides impact human health over the long term, and government assurances of safety are simply false.
"We don't know if you eat an apple that has multiple residues every day what will be the consequences 20 years down the road," said Chensheng Lu, associate professor of environmental exposure biology at the Harvard School of Public Health. "They want to assure everybody that this is safe but the science is quite inadequate. This is a big issue."
The USDA said in its latest report that 441 of the samples it found were considered worrisome as "presumptive tolerance violations," because the residues found either exceeded what is set as safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or they were found in foods that are not expected to contain the pesticide residues at all and for which there is no legal tolerance level. Those samples contained residues of 496 different pesticides, the USDA said.
Spinach, strawberries, grapes, green beans, tomatoes, cucumbers and watermelon were among the foods found with illegal pesticide residue levels. Even residues of chemicals long banned in the U.S. were found, including residues of DDT or its metabolites found in spinach and potatoes. DDT was banned in 1972 because of health and environmental concerns about the insecticide.
Absent from the USDA data was any information on glyphosate residues, even though glyphosate has long been the most widely used herbicide in the world and is commonly sprayed directly on many crops, including corn, soy, wheat and oats. It is the key ingredient in Monsanto Co.'s branded Roundup herbicide, and was declared a probable human carcinogen last year by a team of international cancer scientists working with the World Health Organization. But Monsanto has said glyphosate residues on food are safe. The company asked the EPA to raise tolerance levels for glyphosate on several foods in 2013 and the EPA agreed to do so.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also annually samples foods for residues of pesticides. New documents obtained from the FDA show illegal levels of two types of insecticides—propargite, used to kill mites, and flonicamid, usually aimed at killing aphids and whiteflies—were recently found in honey. Government documents also show that DEET, a common insect repellant, was recently detected by regulators in honey, and the herbicide acetochlor was found on mushrooms.
FDA scientists also reported illegally high levels of the neonicotinoid thiamethoxam found in rice, according to information from the agency. Syngenta has asked the EPA to allow for higher residues of thiamethoxam permitted in numerous crops because the company wants it to have expanded use as a leaf spray. That request is still pending, according to an EPA spokeswoman.
The most recent public residue report issued by the FDA shows that violation rates for pesticide residues have been climbing in recent years. Residue violations in domestic food samples totaled 2.8 percent for the year 2013; double the rate seen in 2009. Violations totaled 12.6 percent for imported foods in 2013, up from 4 percent in 2009.
Like the USDA, the FDA has skipped glyphosate in decades of testing for pesticide residues. But the agency did launch a "special assignment" this year to determine what levels of glyphosate might be showing up in a small group of foods. An FDA chemist reported finding glyphosate residues in honey and several oatmeal products, including baby food.
Private testing data released this month reported the presence of glyphosate residues in Cheerios cereal, Oreo cookies and a variety of other popular packaged foods.
Questions on Cumulative Impacts
Whether or not consumers should worry about food containing pesticide residues is a matter of ongoing dispute. The trio of federal agencies involved in pesticide residue issues all point to what they refer to as "maximum residue limits" (MRLs), or "tolerances," as guidelines for what they say is considered safe. The EPA uses data supplied by the agrichemical industry to help determine where MRLs should be set for each pesticide and each crop the pesticides are expected to be used with.
As long as most of foods sampled show pesticide residues in food below the MRLs, there is no reason to worry, the USDA maintains. "The reporting of residues present at levels below the established tolerance serves to ensure and verify the safety of the Nation's food supply," the 2015 residue report states. The agrichemical industry offers even broader assurances, saying there is nothing to fear from consuming residues of the chemicals it sells farmers for use in food production, even if they exceed legal tolerances.
But many scientists say the tolerances are designed to protect the pesticide users more than consumers. Tolerances vary widely depending upon the pesticide and the crop. The tolerance for the insecticide chlorpyrifos on an apple, for instance, can be very different than the amount of chlorpyrifos allowed on citrus fruits, or on a banana or in milk, according to government tolerance data.
In the case of chlorpyrifos, the EPA has actually said it wants to revoke all food tolerances because studies have linked the chemical to brain damage in children. Though the agency has long considered residues of chlorpyrifos safe, now the agency says, they may not be.
The "EPA cannot, at this time, determine that aggregate exposure to residues of chlorpyrifos, including all anticipated dietary exposures and all other non-occupational exposures for which there is reliable information, are safe," the EPA said last year. Dow AgroSciences, which developed chlorpyrifos in the 1960s, is protesting the EPA efforts, arguing chlorpyrifos is a "critical tool" for farmers. In the latest USDA residue report, chlorpyrifos was found in peaches, apples, spinach, strawberries, nectarines and other foods, though not at levels considered to violate tolerances.
The EPA defends its work with tolerances, and says it has been complying with the Food Quality Protection Act that requires the EPA to consider the cumulative effects of residues of substances "that have a common mechanism of toxicity." The agency says that to set a tolerance for a pesticide, it looks at studies submitted by pesticide companies to identify possible harmful effects the chemical could have on humans, the amount of the chemical likely to remain in or on food, and other possible exposures to the same chemical.
But critics say that is not good enough—assessments must consider more realistic scenarios that take into account the broader cumulative impacts of many different types of pesticide residues to determine how safe it is to consume the mixtures seen in a daily diet. Given that several pesticides commonly used in food production have been linked to disease, declines in cognitive performance, developmental disorders and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in children, there is an urgent need for more in-depth analysis of these cumulative impacts, many scientists say. The National Research Council has declared that "dietary intake represents the major source of pesticide exposure for infants and children, and the dietary exposure may account for the increased pesticide-related health risks in children compared with adults."
"With the ubiquitous exposure to chemical mixtures, assurances of safety based on lists of individual toxicity thresholds can be quite misleading," said Lorrin Pang, an endocrinologist with the Hawaii Department of Health and a former advisor to the World Health Organization.
Tracey Woodruff, a former EPA senior scientist and policy advisor who specializes in environmental pollutants and child health, said there is a clear need for more research. Woodruff directs the program on reproductive health and the environment at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine.
"This is not a trivial matter," she said. "The whole idea of looking at cumulative exposures is a hot topic with scientists. Evaluating individual tolerances as if they occur in solo is not an accurate reflection of what we know—people are exposed to multiple chemicals at the same time and the current approaches do not scientifically account for that."
Critics say scrutiny of pesticide safety is likely to only soften given President-elect Donald Trump's decision to name Myron Ebell to oversee transition efforts at the EPA. Ebell, director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, is a staunch advocate of pesticides and their safety.
"Pesticide levels rarely, if ever, approach unsafe levels. Even when activists cry wolf because residues exceed federal limits that does not mean the products are not safe," states the SAFEChemicalPolicy.org website Ebell's group runs. "In fact, residues can be hundreds of times above regulatory limits and still be safe."
"The mixed messages make it hard for consumers to know what to believe about the safety of pesticide residues in food," said Therese Bonanni, a Clinical Dietitian at Jersey Shore University Medical Center.
"Although the cumulative effect of consuming these toxins over a lifetime is not yet known, short-term data suggests there is certainly a reason to be cautious. The message to consumers becomes very confusing."
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With more than 1.7 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States and more than 100,000 deaths from the virus, physicians face unprecedented challenges in their efforts to keep Americans safe.
They also encounter what some call an "infodemic," an outbreak of misinformation that's making it more difficult to treat patients.
When Leaders and Doctors Spread Misinformation<p>When people in charge of towns, cities, states, and countries spread misinformation, the potential for belief in misinformation to result in policies can have harmful effects.</p><p><a href="https://www.northwell.edu/find-care/find-a-doctor?q=Bruce+E.+Hirsch%2C+MD&insurance=&location=&query_type=provider&physician_partners=false&default_view=list&gender=&language=&sort=relevancy" target="_blank">Dr. Bruce E. Hirsch</a>, attending physician and assistant professor in the infectious disease division of Northwell Health in Manhasset, New York, says an example of this is when President Trump informed the public he was taking hydroxychloroquine as a preventive measure.</p><p>"To approach this enormous challenge, we need some intellectual honesty and clarity, and to disregard expertise and to make decisions and model decisions based on hunches is inviting us to handle challenges on the basis of rumor and uninformed opinion. The magnitude of that error is epic," Hirsch told Healthline.</p><p>Stukus agrees, noting that the harm of this proclamation is documented.</p><p>"Early on when the president touted the benefits of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin, people started to hoard this medicine, and state boards had to shut it down because they were getting so many prescriptions for this unproven therapy that it was not available for those who truly needed it, such as those who have lupus and autoimmune conditions," Stukus said.</p><p>He adds that calls to poison control centers increased after the president suggested using disinfectant to prevent contracting the new coronavirus.</p>
Listen to Science, Even When it Changes<p>When recommendations change or evidence flip-flops, skepticism may arise. However, Stukus says change is the beauty of science.</p><p>"That shows us that we can evolve, and if the evidence shows that our prior thoughts were incorrect, we need to be able to change our recommendations and advice based upon the best quality of evidence at the time," he said.</p><p>Pierre agrees.</p><p>"Science is an iterative process, whereby we arrive at facts and truth through repeated and controlled observations. That means that it's inherently self-correcting as we revise conclusions based on ongoing research. Scientific facts aren't immutable dogma chiseled on a tablet. They change based on the best available evidence we have at a given point in time," he said.</p><p>Because research of COVID-19 has only been underway for 6 months, information is evolving rapidly, and new information may contradict old.</p><p>"There's still much we don't know about exactly how [COVID-19] spreads, what effects it has on the body, or how to best treat it. That means that the best available evidence is preliminary, but that doesn't mean that we should ignore it or turn to other sources of information or opinion as if they're just as valid," Pierre said.</p><p>He explains that conspiracy theories based on mistrust lead to vulnerability to misinformation.</p><p>If people mistrust science because it sometimes "changes its mind," Pierre said, "that shouldn't be used to embrace other opinions based on no evidence at all, which are typically selected based on confirmation bias: what we want to believe rather than what the objective evidence supports."</p>
Where to Find the Best Information<p>Stukus says to start with the <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-nCoV/index.html" target="_blank">CDC</a> and <a href="https://www.nih.gov/health-information/coronavirus" target="_blank">NIH</a>. Then check with your local health officials, because COVID-19 guidelines may vary depending on where you live.</p><p>If you can't find information you need or have questions specifically related to you, call your primary care doctor.</p><p>"Your personal doctor should always be a resource for individual specific questions because they know best how to apply all the nuances retaining to your health, and how to incorporate all the other general [COVID-19] recommendations," Stukus said.</p><p><a href="https://www.eehealth.org/find-a-doctor/b/boyd-laura-b/" target="_blank">Dr. Laura Boyd</a>, primary care physician at Edward-Elmhurst Health Center in Elmhurst, Illinois, says her clinic receives a lot of calls about COVID-19.</p><p>"Most doctors' offices are receiving calls and answering questions, and doing phone or video visits to help clarify and/or order testing over the phone based on patients' symptoms. It is always best to call your doctor's office first instead of worrying about symptoms and waiting too long to seek treatment," she told Healthline.</p><p>If your primary care doctor has limited testing, she suggests looking on your state's public health website for available testing sites.</p><p>With a lot of unknowns related to this virus and disease, Boyd says many patients are feeling overwhelmed and anxious for a treatment.</p><p>"Unfortunately, there is no specific medication recommended for COVID for outpatient. There are a lot of ongoing studies with various drugs going on within the hospital setting. Patients should always contact their doctors about their specific symptoms as they can treat the symptoms that go along with COVID, but there is no cure," Boyd said.</p><p>While we wait for treatment and a vaccine, Hirsch, who treats patients hospitalized for COVID-19 complications on a daily basis, says everyone can do their part by washing hands, wearing a mask, and staying 6 feet apart.</p><p>"As an infectious disease doctor working in the hospital, I see the damage of the pandemic and the worst cases of what's happening. We are trying to get the best possible outcome and confronting this overwhelming biologic reality of this terrible epidemic the best we can," Hirsch said.</p><p>Everyone at home can help in the fight too, he adds.</p><p>"Follow information that is science- and evidence-based, and avoid that which is not," he said.</p>
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