EU-system alerts consumers – after they have eaten

The EU-approval of the pesticide chlorpyrifos was based on one single study concerning possible damages on the developing brain, commissioned by the producer Dow in 1998. Dow has been asked to provide a new study on developmental neurotoxicity, but rejected to comply.

By Staffan Dahllöf

This story is part of our series on chlorpyrifos. Previously we published:

Documents released to us indicate that the EU-wide reporting system called RASFF (Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed) gives European consumers a weak protection, if any.

In April 2018 Austria notified 19 other countries of imported basmati rice from Pakistan that contained chlorpyrifos in a level deemed to pose a serious risk to human health.

The rice was withdrawn from the market by importers in Austria, Germany and the Netherlands.

In Switzerland, Sweden, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and parts of Italy, the rice was never the less reported sold – and most likely consumed – in spite of the alerts in the RASFF-system. This was shown in a detailed RASFF-report  not detectable in the public RASFF-portal run by the European Commission.

Civil servants working with RASFF say the system is aimed to inform other EU-states of potential risks but not designed to detect shortcomings of control. The responsibility for safe products always lays with importers and resellers, we are told.

They also point out that alerts go to the national food safety authorities, while the work in the field like inspections often is done at the municipal level. This creates yet another time lag between alerts and consequences.

Ingunn Haarstad Gudmundsdottir, senior adviser at the Norwegian Food Agency, Mattilsynet, notes:

”When fresh fruit, berries and vegetables are tested randomly the batches are often already sold and consumed when we get the results from the laboratory analysis.”

This observation is echoed by Philippe Grandjean professor in environmental medicine:

“The sad thing about the Danish Food Authority’s control is that the food is eaten at the time the analysis is made, and if the 3 percent (of chlorpyrifos in food samples) in Denmark is representative, then it must mean that there is thus 3 percent of our products which are in fact unsuitable for human consumption, ” he says.

Some of the damaging effect of the pesticide:

Detrimental effects on IQ

”The scientific evidence clearly shows that prenatal exposure to chlorpyrifos has detrimental effects on IQ and brain cortex thickness. Chlorpyrifos is toxic for the central nervous system, i.e. neurotoxic, and it is an endocrine disruptor, notably of thyroid signalling. Chlorpyrifos can thus interfere with brain development.”

”In 2012, it was shown that brain cortex thickness is significantly reduced as a result of prenatal chlorpyrifos exposure. Recently, French researcher Vincent Laudet has demonstrated unequivocally that chlorpyrifos is a thyroid disrupting chemicals. One can wonder why it has not already been banned.”

”A partial answer comes from the fact that the agencies evaluating the risk were misled by the manufacturer’s dossier where brain endpoints were not correctly reported, underestimating the effects, as shown by a recent paper by Axel Mie and colleagues.”

”In 2015, we evaluated the cost of exposure to organophosphate pesticides – Chlorpyrifos being the most used in the EU. We found exposure to organophosphate was associated with 13 million lost IQ points and 59,300 cases of intellectual disability, at costs of €146 billion per year.”

Damage the brain of young children

”One of the worst consequences is that the pesticides causes the loss of IQ points for our children. When you look at studies run by Columbia University, they show that the exposure to chemicals are linked to the decrease in IQ, tremors, and loss of cognitive potential. Chlorpyrifos is one of those chemicals affecting those measurable decreases.”

”The main argument to keep the massive use of pesticides is that it would be the only way to sustain the agricultural supply. However, this is not true. First of all, there are alternatives that seem to me much safer, and, in addition, there are studies now show that organic agriculture could not diminish the production values of food.”

”There is a place for regulation as regulators should work on avoiding the contact of chemicals and the population. Also we should reduce the use of plastic in food. In addition, simply opening the windows every day a few minutes at home, that will have a positive impact in our bodies. Finally, eating organic, we are getting away from pesticides and that makes pressure on the market.”

Chlorpyrifos is a nerve poison

“Chlorpyrifos is a nerve poison that affects the transmission of signals between nerve cells. Previously, the common belief was that the substance disappeared quickly from the environment and affected people to a small extent, but gradually one has understood how harmful it is.”

Hylland has been working on pollutants and pollution in water for decades. He led the Environmental Toxication Committee, which produced a report to environmental minister Erik Solheim in 2010, and in the past year he has led experiments with chlorpyrifos on cod, a fish living in Norway’s salt water fjords.
“We wanted to see how the drug affects both general health and behavior. We saw that chlorpyrifos clearly affected the nervous system of the cod. So far, we have not seen a changed physical behavior in the fish, but it could be measured in the nerve pathways.”

“We know that the substance also affects people. One should keep in mind that it is not the only pesticide that is toxic to the nervous system and we are exposed to several of them simultaneously. So even though they each have low limits for what is allowed, one gets in itself a whole lot and the substances can have negative interaction effects. I think basically chlorpyrifos should be banned. The industry can protest as much as they want. But it is possible to grow more ecologically or find other solutions.”

Exposed mothers gave birth to mentally retarded children

Children in California’s main agricultural region Central Valley were compared to their mothers’ exposure to chlorpyrifos and other pesticides. 2961 of the children had a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) including autism and Asperger syndrome, 445 of them had known intellectual disabilities and were recorded as mentally retarded.

Ten times as many children without such diagnosis were also included in the study. The mothers’ exposure to chlorpyrifos and other pesticides was assessed.

Findings in the study suggest that a child’s risk of ASD increases if the mother’s residence during pregnancy was within 2000 meters of fields sprayed with chlorpyrifos.

”From a public health and preventive medicine perspective, our findings support the need to avoid prenatal and infant exposure to pesticides to protect early brain development,” the scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles conclude.

As noted by Philippe Grandjean, professor in environmental medicine in Denmark and the USA, it can always be disputed what causes a disease or damage:

”It could be that some of these mothers were smokers, and some of them had other behaviours of some kind that can have caused the effects. This is always the case. The question is whether we should take children as hostage and continue spraying until we get more studies.”

In the public part of the draft assessment from EU’s food safety agency EFSA, it is stated that chlorpyrifos could be producing adverse effects on the developing nervous system. The opinion of an expert group about the necessity of further toxicological information is deemed necessary, the draft assessment says.

Photo: Oranges from Spain is some of the fruits in EU, where there is a really high risk they are contaminated with chlorpyrifos. These oranges are harvested in the Spanish province, Valencia. – © APIADS – Agrupación de defensa sanitaria apícola.

The Cross-border investigation on chlorpyrifos was initiated by Investigative Reporting Denmark and Danwatch, and made in collaboration with journalists from Knack in Belgium, Le Monde in France, Dagbladet in Norway, Newsweek in Poland, Oštro in Slovenia, El Confidential in Spain and The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting in the US. The investigation was supported by

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