(Beyond Pesticides, November 26, 2012) The U.S Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) risk assessment process does not account for cumulative dietary exposure to the multitude of pesticides on conventional foods. The agency typically analyzes the exposure risk associated with each pesticide on an individual basis, except for those determined to have a common mechanism of toxicity. In light of these gaps in America’s regulatory process, researchers at UC Davis and UCLA in Cancer and non-cancer health effects from food contaminant exposures for children and adults in California: a risk assessment conducted an analysis of the toxics children and adults are exposed to through a normal diet. Rainbow Vogt, Ph.D., lead author of the study published in the journal Environmental Health, explains, “We focused on children because early exposure can have long-term effects on disease outcomes.”
Researchers preformed their risk assessment by estimating exposure to food contaminants based on self-reported food frequency data for eleven toxic compounds- acrylamide, arsenic, lead, mercury, chlorpyrifos, permethrin, endosulfan, dieldrin, chlordane, DDE, and dioxin. Data was drawn from the 2007 Study of the Use of Products and Exposure-Related Behavior, which examines behaviors that influence exposure to toxicants in the home environment. Normal consumption patterns were then measured against established benchmarks for cancer risks and other non-cancer health risks.
Results of the study are of particular concern for parents with young children. Every child in the study exceeded the cancer benchmarks for arsenic, dieldrin, DDE and dioxin. Moreover, children exceeded the non-cancer and cancer benchmarks by a greater margin than adults for all compounds. In fact, preschool-age children (years 2-4) were significantly more likely to have higher dietary intakes relative to their body weight for acrylamide, lead, chlordane, dieldrin, DDE, and dioxins compared to older children (years 5-7). As co-author of the study, Irva Hertz-Picciotto, Ph.D. notes, “We need to be especially careful about children, because they tend to be more vulnerable to many of these chemicals and their effects on the developing brain.”
The study authors note that data on cumulative exposure to individual pesticides does not provide a holistic view of the chemicals children are exposed to throughout their young lives. The study explains, “Since exposures may operate synergistically, additively, or even antagonistically, a more comprehensive approach to establishing safe contaminant levels in food would consider the hundreds of chemicals humans are exposed to on a daily basis through a number of different routes and from different sources.”
Of particular note for environmental regulators is the significant presence of DDE, a breakdown product of the legacy chemical DDT. Co-author of the study Deborah Bennett, Ph.D. notes, “Given the significant exposure to legacy pollutants, society should be concerned about the persistence of compounds we are currently introducing into the environment. If we later discover a chemical has significant health risks, it will be decades before it’s completely removed from the ecosystem.”
Beyond Pesticides has long called for an alternatives assessment in environmental rulemaking that creates a regulatory trigger to adopt alternatives and drive the market to go green. The alternatives assessment approach differs most dramatically from the current approach of risk assessment by rejecting uses and exposures deemed acceptable under risk assessment calculations, but unnecessary because of the availability of safer alternatives. For example, in agriculture, when studies show (see Beyond Pesticides’ Pesticide—Induced Diseases Database) clear links to pesticide use and multiple types of cancer, it would no longer be possible to use hazardous pesticides, as it is with risk assessment”based policy, when there are clearly effective organic systems with competitive yields that, in fact, outperform chemical”intensive agriculture in drought years. This same analysis can be applied to home and garden use of pesticides where households using pesticides suffer elevated rates of cancer.
The study does review alternative strategies to reduce risk. Researchers put forward the idea of eating a varied diet and consuming many different types of foods because, for instance, certain chemicals may be found in lettuce and broccoli, while others in peaches in apples. The goal in this approach would be to minimize excessive exposure to a certain chemical. However, as the authors noted early in the study, attempting to minimize risk by eating a varied diet could lead to unknown consequences. Different chemicals can operate synergistically, possibly increasing the potency of other chemicals. For a look at the numerous chemicals found on conventional produce, refer to Beyond Pesticides’ Eating with a Conscience Webpage.
The only sure way to avoid exposure to multiple pesticides and chemicals is to choose organic food, and the authors note this as a plausible strategy to avoid chemical exposure. Organic certification is the only system of food labeling that is subject to independent public review and oversight, assuring consumers that toxic, synthetic pesticides used in conventional agriculture are replaced by management practices focused on soil biology, biodiversity, and plant health. This eliminates commonly used toxic chemicals in the production and processing of food that is not labeled organic -pesticides that contaminate our food, water, and air, hurt biodiversity, harm farmworkers, and kill bees, birds, fish and other wildlife. For more information, visit Beyond Pesticides’ Organic Food program page.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.