Chemicals Banned in 1970s Still in Our Food

by Zachary Shahan

Extremely toxic chemicals linger in our food decades after being banned. Are we setting ourselves up for a worse discovery than this with GMOs?

Think that once a toxic chemical is banned from agricultural use it doesn’t take long for it to leave our food? Think again. Recent research shows that numerous chemicals banned years or even decades ago, such as DDT, are still showing up in many of the foods we consume today.

These are labeled POPs, “persistent organic pollutants”, and are not quite as nice as their acronym sounds. POPs require decades to break down and they can travel the globe blowing in the wind or travelling on water (even ending up in the Arctic). Additionally, once ingested by humans or animals, POPs can sit in our fat tissues for ages, raising our risk of cancer or other diseases, altering hormones, reducing fertility, and disrupting brain development.

A recent study looking at these POPs in the food supply chain found the presence of these chemicals across a wide range of food types. Published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, the study led by Dr. Arnold Schecter, a professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health who has been studying human exposure to chemicals for over 25 years, analyzed more than 300 samples from supermarkets in the Dallas area. The samples were combined into 31 food types (i.e cheese, beef, peanut butter) and tested for old contaminants as well as newer ones. According to the authors, “Every food within this study contained multiple pesticides.”

The DDT metabolite DDE was the most prevalent, occurring in 23 of the 31 foods sampled.

In What Foods are POPs the Most Common?

It is unclear what kind of effect these small amounts of toxic chemicals are having on humans, but if you want to avoid them, there are definitely some foods that contain more of these toxins than others. “The more fat a food contains, the more chemicals are present. Foods including peanut butter, ice cream, cheese, butter, oil, fish and high-fat meats showed higher contamination levels than vegetables and low-fat milk,” Sustainablog reports.

Salmon was found to contain the most of these contaminants. It was found to contain “traces of six types of PCBs, two flame retardants and 25 pesticides, including DDT, dieldrin and toxaphene.” Additionally, a 2004 study found that farmed salmon contained approximately ten times more POPs than wild salmon.

POPs Traveling from Animals to Animals to Humans

POPs become increasingly concentrated as they move through the food chain. Animals being fed animal fat is one major source of POPs in humans. A 2003 report, published by National Academies Press, noted that feed containing animal fat was a major source of people’s continued exposure to dioxins, which are carcinogenic.

“We recycle waste animal fats back into the food supply,” Dr. David Carpenter, director of the Institute for Environmental Health at the University of Albany, New York explains. “We feed the cow fat to the pigs and the chickens, and we feed the pig and chicken fat to the cows.” Waste animal products apparently make up the large majority of animal feed.

Lessons Learned? Maybe Not

Other than leaving you with some foods to consider avoiding, this raises a larger issue. Rather than learn from the mistakes we made years ago approving these POPs without doing comprehensive testing on them, we seem to be setting ourselves up for a similar or worse nightmare if genetically modified foods turn out to have such effects (or worse).

GM crops are approved without testing from independent bodies or researchers. Government agencies just trust the companies when they say that their products have been tested and found to be safe. The data is not available for others to evaluate in the vast majority of cases either. Are we going to find out in a few decades that GM crops discovered to be completely unsafe for humans cannot be controlled or eliminated? Unless we see some major changes in the way we regulate these crops, this could well be the case.



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