Glyphosate is in a bunch of popular cereals and oatmeals—but at levels below federal health standards. Experts say it's difficult to estimate risk from the levels found but the report is still worrisome since children are consistently exposed.
Glyphosate— the active ingredient in Monsanto's Roundup weedkiller—was found in all 28 samples of different cereals, oatmeal and snack bars tested by a lab for Environmental Working Group, according to a report released today.
The nonprofit health and environmental organization sent 10 samples of different types of General Mills' Cheerios and 18 samples of different Quaker brand products from PepsiCo, including instant oatmeal, breakfast cereal and snack bars to Anresco Laboratories in San Francisco.
"People don't want this pesticide on their food, especially in foods marketed to and consumed by children," Tasha Stoiber, a senior scientist at EWG, told EHN.
The report comes two months after EWG reported glyphosate in 43 out of 45 samples of oat-based foods, including five foods that used "organic" oats. Since that report, glyphosate has been consistently in the news as last month a jury in California found Monsanto's Roundup caused a groundskeeper's cancer, and awarded him a settlement of $289 million. The damages were reduced to $78 million this week after Monsanto asked for a retrial, which wasn't granted.
Researchers cautioned against being too alarming about the new lab results. "It's hard to look at parts per billion levels and make a connection to what a problem could be if kids ate Frosted Cheerios everyday," Deborah Kurrasch, and associate professor and researcher in the Department of Medical Genetics at the University of Calgary, told EHN.
In response to the report, a Quaker Foods spokesperson told EHN via email that "the report artificially creates a 'safe level' for glyphosate that is detached from those that have been established by responsible regulatory bodies in an effort to grab headlines."
The levels of glyphosate in the latest round of food testing all fall far below the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's threshold, but 26 of the foods tested higher than EWG's own health benchmark, which is 160 parts per billion. EWG's benchmark, which is set at what the organization's scientists consider protective of children's health, is much higher than the EPA's, which is 30 parts per million.
Academic researchers, industry scientists and public health experts have been debating the potential health impacts from glyphosate exposure for years. Three years ago, the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified glyphosate as "probably carcinogenic to humans." The chemical also has been linked to hormone disruption, birth defects, reproductive, liver and kidney problems.
These new numbers from EWG testing "are surprisingly high," Charles Benbrook, visiting scholar in the Bloomberg School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins University, and a visiting professor at the University of Newcastle in the U.K., told EHN.
"Even with the high chronic reference dose the EPA uses for glyphosate, there is already reason for concern about some of these higher end residues in children's food," Benbrook said. "Especially since this could be a significant portion of an infant's food and it's at a time they're most vulnerable to developmental impacts of a pesticide."
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Almost everyone has glyphosate in their body. Tests in the U.S. and Europe show roughly 90 percent of people have traces of the chemical in their urine.
Glyphosate "moves through the body quickly, so when biomonitoring studies report high levels of detection, it means people are exposed on a daily or near daily basis," Benbrook said.
In the recent round of testing the highest levels of glyphosate were found in Quaker Oatmeal Squares Honey Nut, which had about 2,837 parts per billion, and Quaker Oatmeal Squares Brown Sugar, which had 2,746 parts per billion. The levels found are consistent with not only EWG's first round of testing, but with U.S. Food and Drug Administration tests of certain foods.
Benbrook said these levels "no doubt reflect product made with oats in which a substantial portion or significant share of oats from a field where oats are sprayed right before harvest to speed up the harvest process."
It's the "only conceivable way a level that high could wind up in a food as highly processed as an oatmeal bar," he said.
Farmers will spray wheat, barley and oat fields with glyphosate herbicides prior to harvest to hasten and even out the drying of grains, which allows the combine to get into fields earlier and ensure a productive harvest.
We want "companies to work with their suppliers ... it's possible to produce oats without glyphosate as a pre-harvest desiccant," Stoiber said.
In response to the report, a General Mills spokesperson told EHN via email that the company continues to "work closely with farmers, our suppliers and conservation organizations to minimize the use of pesticides on the ingredients we use in our foods.
"The extremely low levels of pesticide residue cited in recent news reports is a tiny fraction of the amount that the government allows."
Small, repeated exposures can add up
While the levels are high relative to food concentrations, the amount of glyphosate found in the food in the new report is roughly 7 million times smaller than what agricultural workers who apply glyphosate would be exposed to, Vanessa Fitsanakis, an associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences and vice-chair of pharmaceutical sciences at Northeast Ohio Medical University, told EHN.
For comparison to the food, which contained levels in the parts per billion range, the amount of glyphosate in home-use Roundup herbicide is about 2 percent, or 2 parts per 100. "I'd be much more concerned about children running across the herbicide in parent's garage or playing in the yard after it's been sprayed," Fitsanakis said. "That's a much more dangerous scenario."
However, she added, "I'm not saying [the food exposure] is not dangerous as they could be getting a little bit every day."
The EWG benchmark is based on "the risks of lifetime exposure, because small, repeated exposures can add up if someone eats food containing glyphosate every day," the report stated.
The organization developed their benchmark based on the level set by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment and built in added protections since children are more susceptible to carcinogens.
In its statement, the General Mills spokesperson said "most crops grown in fields use some form of pesticides and trace amounts are found in the majority of food we all eat. Experts at the FDA and EPA determine the safe levels for food products. These are very strict rules that we follow as do farmers who grow crops."
Benbrook said the recent findings are concerning even using the EPA threshold.
"For a 1-year-old oatmeal could comprise a third of food consumed in day – if it came from a product with 2 to 3 ppm of glyphosate, it's a substantial amount of exposure," he said.
"The take home for me is that we need to make the concerns about glyphosate a higher priority," Kurrasch said. "For decades it's been considered quite safe."