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Toxins 20 perc us food supply { October 14 2002 }

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Toxins in 20% of U.S. Food Supply

By SId Kirchheimer
WebMD Medical News Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario, MD

October 14, 2002 -- About 20% of the entire U.S. food supply is contaminated with toxins from pesticide residue, and a recent study by an anti-pesticide group estimates that the average American receives about 68 "exposures" to these substances each day. In some commonly consumed foods, as many as five different chemicals are present.

A series of critical articles published in the November 2002 issue of The Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health calls for more stringent measures to remove persistent organic pollutants (POPs) from food production. They argue that despite earlier calls for action, international movement to stop the use of these substances has been slow.

POPs are residues from pesticides and insecticides including DDT, chlordane, dieldrin, and others that are included in the government's "dirty dozen" list. Although many of these chemicals have been banned in the U.S., they continue to be used in other countries, and are in imported food sources.

The articles report that the estimated daily dose of the more common POPs exceeds the EPA's risk threshold for children. And consuming a full day's diet contaminated with DDT at levels permitted by the FDA would bring an adult level of exposure 90 times above its safety level.

For example, a typical holiday dinner of roast turkey, squash, mashed potatoes, green beans and rolls and butter results in 38 exposures, the study reports.

Even organic foods can be touched by pesticides. About 60% of sampled organic vegetables contained residue of pesticides, although their levels tend to be less dangerous.

"Our findings are based on data collected by the U.S. government to examine pesticide residue in the American food supply," says Susan Kegley, PhD, a staff chemist at Pesticide Action Network in San Francisco and author of the lead article." "Prevention of further food contamination should be a national health policy priority in every country," Kegley tells WebMD.

"Many of these toxins evaporate and are carried in air currents," says Kegley. "You can find huge concentrations in countries thousands of miles from where they are used. Because they condense in the air and are carried in air currents, they often settle in northern countries, which are particularly vulnerable."

In May 2001, some 150 countries agreed to sign an international treaty -- the Stockholm Convention -- to phase out the use POPs in food production and manufacturing. But as of this month, only 22 nations have taken action to ratify the treaty -- less than half of the 50 needed before the treaty can be implemented. The United States is currently reevaluating its policy and "is close to ratifying," says Kegley.

The class of chemicals addressed by the treaty may be linked to a host of diseases, including some forms of cancer. "We really don't know the effects of exposure to all the pesticides, but we do know that the incidence of certain diseases and conditions is increasing for unexplained reasons," Kegley tells WebMD. "This includes childhood leukemias, non-Hodgkin's lymphomas, and certain types of breast cancer. All have been linked to independent exposure to pesticides; it's not definitive, but it appears to be leaning that way."

Still, not everyone is convinced that the pesticides are to blame for rising rates of those and other diseases. "More information is needed to determine the actual risks of extremely low levels of POPs to human health," counters Tim Meredith of the World Health Organization, who calls Kegley's report an "unbalanced worst-case scenario."

"It is not a point of debate that the Stockholm Convention for the prevention of further accumulation of persistent organic pollutants should be ratified and implemented by all countries," he writes, noting that the POP levels are "extremely low" in the U.S. food supply and "there is no scientific consensus that these levels are hazardous to most humans."

2002 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.

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