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Daily News Blog

04
Feb

USDA Food Pesticide Residue Survey Raises Alarm, while Pesticide Industry and EPA Mislead Public

(Beyond Pesticides, February 4, 2022) In January, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued its 30th Pesticide Data Program (PDP) Annual Summary report (which evaluates each year the presence of pesticide residues on produce) and misleads the public on the safety of food and agricultural practices. This 2020 report concludes that more than 99% of the produce samples tested showed residues below established U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) benchmark levels. At first blush, this sounds very reassuring, but Beyond Pesticides maintains that there is (always) more to the “safety” story, not least of which are serious deficiencies in EPA’s establishment of those “tolerances.” Those flaws include a lack of risk assessment for vulnerable sub-populations, such as farmworkers, people with compromised health, children, and perhaps, cultural/ethnic and regional sub-groups of the general population, and a failure to fully assess serious health outcomes such as disruption of the endocrine system (which contributes to numerous serious diseases). For everyone, Beyond Pesticides recommends choosing organic produce whenever possible — the vast majority of which does not contain synthetic pesticide residues.

The PDP report asserts that “the data . . . illustrate that residues found in agricultural products sampled are at levels that do not pose risk to consumers’ health and are safe according to EPA and FDA.” Blue Book Services/Produce reporting uses the cheery headline (borrowed from the Alliance for Food and Farming), “USDA PDP report results help ensure consumer confidence in produce.” The agribusiness media and lobbying outfit CropLife America, which represents manufacturers of pesticides and other agricultural chemicals (according to SourceWatch) is touting the report with the reassuring headline, “USDA Pesticide Data Program Report Confirms Food Safety.”

Annually, USDA (through AMS, its Agricultural Marketing Service) and EPA identify produce items to be evaluated (note that not every item is assessed every year). As Blue Book describes, “AMS partners with cooperating state agencies to collect and analyze pesticide residue levels on the selected food commodities. . . . EPA relies on PDP data to conduct dietary risk assessments and to ensure that any pesticide residues in foods remain at or below levels that EPA has set.” The report notes that, “PDP is a voluntary program and is not designed for enforcement of tolerances. However, PDP informs [USDA] and EPA of presumptive tolerance violations if detected residues exceed the EPA tolerance or if residues are detected that have no EPA tolerance established.”

The 2020 PDP analysis evaluated 9,600 samples of fresh and processed vegetables and fruits, including “apple juice, bananas, blueberries (fresh and frozen), broccoli, cantaloupe, carrots, cauliflower, collard greens, eggplant, green beans, kiwi fruit, orange juice, radishes, summer squash, sweet bell peppers, tangerines, tomato paste and winter squash.” The sources of those produce items were 59.5% domestic (U.S.), 34.9% imported, 4.9% of “mixed national origin,” and 0.7% of unknown origin.

The complete PDP database for 2020 (and for previous years) is available at http://www.ams.usda.gov/pdp. The current analyses yielded these top-level results:

  • more than 99% of tested samples tested had pesticide residues below the established EPA tolerances; 30% had no detectable residue
  • .49% (47 samples) showed residues exceeding established tolerances; of these, 74.5% (35) were domestic, 23.4% (11) were imported, and 2.1% (1) was of unknown origin
  • residues with no established tolerance were found in 3.2% (303) of the 9,600 samples; of these, 65.7% (199) were domestic, 33% (100) were imported, and 1.3% (4) were of unknown origin

Organic produce was included in the PDP sampling. In 2020, 7.4% (706) of the tested samples were organic; nearly all organic samples were “zero detects,” but very small numbers of organic items sampled had detectable residues. This contamination can happen in a number of ways, including pesticide drift from conventional to organic fields, migration through soil or water, or infrequently, misrepresentation of treated produce as “organic.”

It is noteworthy that the PDP tests for pesticide residue, but also tests for what it calls “environmental contaminants” — pesticides that are “no longer used in the U.S., but due to their persistence in the environment, particularly in soil . . . can be still taken up by plants.” Such toxicants include aldrin, chlordane, DDT, DDD and DDE (metabolites of DDT), dieldrin (a metabolite of Aldrin), heptachlor, lindane, and others. Residue results for environmental contaminants can be found in Appendix C of the PDP report.

Among the examples of such “legacy” contamination documented in the report are these:

  • Use of DDT has been banned in the U.S. since 1972, yet its residues (and those of its metabolite, DDE) continue to show up in food plants — in this report, particularly on collards, broccoli, carrots, radishes, and winter squash.
  • Chlordane was found in apple juice, and in summer and winter squash.
  • Dieldrin showed up on cantaloupe and on many winter squash samples.

In addition, particularly toxic chemical pesticides were found on a variety of samples, including atrazine (collard greens); bifenthrin (collard greens, tomato paste, eggplant); carbaryl (eggplant, apple juice); thiamethoxam (broccoli, cauliflower); cyfluthrin (bell peppers, collards); malathion (blueberries, eggplant); and chlorothalonil (green beans, bell peppers, summer and winter squash).

Many of the chemical residues found on produce items are fungicides; other dominant categories include organophosphate insecticides, synthetic pyrethroids, and neonicotinoids. All of these categories of chemicals have multiple members associated with noxious health and/or environmental impacts. Though this report focuses on food, it is critical to be mindful of the intersectional nature of many pesticides — which is to say that they cause harm to health, ecosystems, wildlife, and the environment and natural resources broadly. See, for example, the harm caused by methoxyfenozide to endangered species — in this case, the Karner Blue butterfly. Public concern over how food is grown thus extends far more broadly than the matter of what produce we put on our dinner plates.

There are some other notable observations from and “themes” discernible in the PDP report. For example, myriad residues were found in apple juice, which is consumed primarily by children. According to the PDP database, residues of at least 15 pesticides were found in apple juice samples; many of those are fungicides, which are associated with a variety of health problems, including asthma and other respiratory issues, neurological problems, and others. Neonicotinoids are well represented among the chemical residues found; these are destructive to pollinators and other insects, ecosystems, and human health — the last happening often via contamination of drinking water sources. As Beyond Pesticides wrote in 2020, health impacts can include neurotoxicityreproductive anomalies, hepatic and renal damage, and potentially, a catalytic role in hormone-dependent cancer.

An additional striking result: boscalid residues show up frequently in the report; this may be concerning, given its association with kidney damage and the current elevated rates of kidney disease in the U.S. population. Another, identified by Beyond Pesticides Executive Director Jay Feldman, is that bell peppers seem to be particularly laden with residues. One sample of sweet bell peppers contained residues of 18 pesticides. None of the residues exceeded the established tolerances. Multiple residue detections can result from several factors: application of more than one pesticide on a crop during a growing season; unintentional pesticide spray drifting onto a field; planting of crops in fields previously treated with the pesticide; and/or transfer of residues of post-harvest fungicides or growth regulators applied to other commodities but stored in the same facilities.

Collard greens stand out as particularly contaminated, at various frequencies and levels, by residues of a large number of pesticides. Beyond Pesticides lists them here to demonstrate — for a single food item — the extent of pesticide use. The list from the 2020 PDP: acephate, acetamiprid, atrazine, azoxystrobin, bensulide, bifenthrin, boscalid, bromacil, buprofezin, carbaryl, chlorantraniliprole, chlorothalonil, chlorpropham, chlorpyrifos (only recently banned for use on food crops), clothianidin, cyfluthrin, cyhalothrin, cymoxanil, cypermethrin, cyprodinil, diazinon, dieldrin (banned since 1987), difenoconazole, dimethoate, dimethomorph, dinotefuran, diuron, esfenvalerate, famoxadone, fenamidone, flonicamid, flubendiamide, fludioxonil, fluopicolide, fluopyram, flutriafol, imidacloprid, indoxacarb, linuron, mandipropamid, metalaxyl, methamidophos, methidathion, methomyl, methoxyfenozide, novaluron, oxamyl, permethrin, pronamide, pyraclostrobin, spinetoram, spinosad, spirotetramat, tebuconazole, tetrahydrophthalimide (a metabolite of captan), thiamethoxam, trifloxystrobin, trifloxysulfuron, and trifluralin, and several others.   

This chronicle of chemicals points to one of the multiple flaws in EPA’s approach to assessing risks of pesticide contamination of the food supply (and of pesticides more broadly). As mentioned above, the agency does not consider variations in cultural/ethnic or regional consumption habits. For example, the prevalence of collard greens in U.S. Southern and African-American cuisine might mean disproportionate levels of exposure (to some or many of that list of pesticides above), and therefore, disproportionate risk than might be the case for the general population. Rather than evaluate such regional or ethnic group risks, EPA “normalizes” risk across the general U.S. population; this practice has the potential to “dilute” the apparent level of risk to some sub-groups.

In addition, EPA neglects to do adequate risk assessment, which underlies the establishment of “tolerances” for food, for other vulnerable sub-populations, such as farmworkers, people with compromised health, and children. EPA also fails to evaluate exposures to multiple pesticides, or to pesticide admixtures for their potential synergistic health impacts.

To these shortcomings Beyond Pesticides would add the agency’s failure, as noted by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and reported in this August 2021 Daily News Blog article, to make progress in protecting the population from potentially damaging endocrine disruption impacts of exposures to synthetic chemical pesticides (and other chemicals of concern). Many, many pesticides act as disruptors of the human (and other animal) endocrine systems. The GAO summarized its report: “Without the required testing and an effective system of internal controls, the EPA cannot make measurable progress toward complying with statutory requirements or safeguarding human health and the environment against risks from endocrine-disrupting chemicals.”

Absent adequate protection of the food supply by USDA and EPA, which would necessarily employ a far more precautionary approach to the use of pesticides broadly, and a more nuanced approach to the establishment of food tolerances, there are steps consumers can take to reduce the impacts of pesticide exposure through diet. Chief among those is to purchase and consume the bulk of household provisions, as much as possible, as organic. Beyond Pesticides offers guidance via its Eating with a Conscience and Buying Organic Products (on a budget!) web pages, and for would-be (and even experienced) backyard or community garden growers of food, Grow Your Own Organic Food.

Source: https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/2020PDPAnnualSummary.pdf

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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