Picture of Emily Marquez

Emily Marquez

Pesticides — in our daily bread

It's not exactly a shocker, but a recently released report from the United Kingdom (UK) Health and Safety Executive indicates that yes, there are low levels of pesticides in food commonly found in supermarkets. Seventy-seven percent of the starchy foods tested — including various kinds of bread — contained measurable residues.

Among the pesticides found was the controversial chemical glyphosate, with 23% of cereal bars containing residues of Monsanto's flagship herbicide.

The Pesticide Residues Monitoring Programme releases quarterly reports for pesticide residues in food, including fruits and vegetables. This most recent final report included results on sampling of starchy foods and grains: cereal bars, bread, noodles and wheat samples. The food samples in this group were tested for up to 248 pesticides.

Breaking down the starchy food data

Five kinds of pesticides were found in the starchy food products, with samples taken from five source countries (Belgium, France, Ireland, the Netherlands, and the UK). The greatest number of samples had either organophosphate insecticides (OPs), and/or the two herbicides chlormequat and glyphosate.

Of the food products tested, 75% of the bread products, 90% of cereal bars, and 38% of the noodles had at least one pesticide residue.

While no residues were above the levels considered "safe" in the food products, one herbicide (chlorpropham) was found on raw wheat at a level above the recommended Maximum Residue Level.

Even at low levels..

OPs are known neurotoxicants, and a large number of studies suggest that prenatal exposure to these chemicals may affect children's neurodevelopment and cognitive and motor function.

Rodent studies suggest that fetal exposure to low levels of the OP chlorpyrifos can lead to adverse effects on both organ development and cognition.

The general population is exposed to low concentrations of pesticides through our food and environment throughout our lifetime. It is well understood that these low levels of exposure — in the case of chemicals that have endocrine-disrupting actions like OPs — can adversely impact development and other key processes.

How safe is "safe"?

According to the 2007 EPA Integrated Risk Information System, chlormequat chloride is "slightly toxic to mammals on an acute oral exposure basis."

Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto's RoundUp, has been in the news lately due to its dominance as the top herbicide in this country. While the weight of the evidence on glyphosate has not yet identified major health risks, recent studies have indicated that we should continue to raise questions about this heavily-used herbicide. With so many of us exposed, it never hurts to be cautious.

So, we know we have pesticides in our food, and annual reports from food safety commissions and the like will continue to tell us that. The authors of this latest report tell people in the UK not to worry, as these are levels below what the government says are acceptable.

But when it comes to OPs in particular, I cast a skeptical eye at any level at all being considered "safe."

Photo credit: Muhla1/iStock

Picture of Emily Marquez

Emily Marquez

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