Sometimes silence can be deafening. As in the case of chlorpyrifos. Chlorpyri-what, you’re thinking? Relatively few people know about the insecticide even though it is one of the most common pesticides used on fruits and vegetables.
Chlorpyrifos has been called the most dangerous pesticide you don’t know about.
This is probably why authorities, companies and even governments now choose to stick their heads in the sand. Or for another animal kingdom inspired picture: if, like the three monkeys, they do not see anything, hear anything or say something, then perhaps the evil will disappear by itself.
There are two extremely unpleasant facts that have suddenly emerged. The first reason for concern is that the EU Food Safety Authority in July established that there is no safe level at all for the insecticide chlorpyrifos. At all levels, even the lowest, it is considered to be harmful to brain development in fetuses and young children.
Oops! No safe level at all! Although chlorpyrifos may not be used in cultivation in Sweden(a relatively restrictive EU country in these terms), samples that were taken from women in Sweden showed traces of it in their blood. The cause is that it is permitted to spray in the other 20 EU countries, not to mention in the rest of the world. And Sweden, just as many other countries, imports massive quantities of fruits and vegetables. This would be ok as long as the levels were below the EU limit value for what is safe, but now there is no longer a safe limit.
This substance has been found during sampling on every fifth fruit grown in Spain, including 40 percent of oranges and 35 percent of mandarins. And it can, according to EU experts, damage the brains of children, in any dose. Unpleasant is an understatement.
This is why everyone is sticking their heads in the sand. If we do not pretend to hear anything, see nothing and say nothing then we can continue to sell this to our ignorant consumers for another six months. This drug is so common that it is difficult to remove and this has been going on ever since the drug was introduced in 1965.
While there are some grocers who have announced that they intend to phase out chlorpyrifos from their shelves, not completely phase out right away, but start, other food chains have announced that they are following developments in the EU.
But there are alternatives. I myself (who lives in Sweden) plan to buy Swedish-grown and/or organic – especially if it is imported.
That was the first unpleasant fact. Now comes the second.
The reason why EFSA’s experts suddenly changed their footing is that two Swedish researchers, Axel Mie at the Karolinska Institute and Christina Rudén at Stockholm University, together with Philippe Grandjean at the University of Southern Denmark, went in depth and analyzed the studies that the industry has delivered upon which, for many years, was the basis for the approval of the substance.
They then discovered that the industry had also seen nerve damage in their animal experiments but chose not to report this. When I contacted EFSA myself, I was told that this new insight was the basis for the turnaround.
So here we have one of the most common pesticides that, according to EU experts, can now cause nerve damage to children and fetuses at all doses, and which for years, according to EU experts, has been approved on false grounds. The health issues this has likely caused should not be overlooked.
Today’s system for testing whether different chemicals are safe is based on trust between industry and authorities. Results should not be falsified. Period. Now it suddenly becomes very clear that such things seem to be happening and that there are also no good routines for ensuring transparency. And what will be the consequence if someone breaks the rules of the game? Is anyone responsible? By who? Not to mention, the many questions raised over and over again- whether the experts who are sitting – and perhaps even more so – have sat on the EU committees and approved various chemicals have been independent and impartial?
In short. This can be a systemic crisis during resignation. Because if it could go so wrong with chlorpyrifos, what is the status of other substances?
I myself cannot help but remember the reactions when I wrote about a report five years ago in which the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation emphasized that there were traces of pesticides in nine out of ten fruits. The focus was the most offensive substance, chlorpyrifos. The Swedish Food Agency’s expert did not concur and went on to certify that the levels that occur are usually well below the EU limit value and do not pose any risks.
When I wrote about EFSA’s position, I was told by the National Food Agency that the authority is following the development but will of course adapt to the decisions made within the EU.
I can only conclude that limit values should keep extra-wide safety margins, particularly when researchers, as in the case of chlorpyrifos, do not agree.
This is a guest post. The opinions expressed are the writer’s own.