Hormone disrupters found in two thirds of French lettuce

Limits for pesticide residues in lettuce are higher than for any other fruit or vegetable. [Jeremy Bronson/Flickr]

An investigation has found that the majority of French lettuce contains traces of hormone disrupting chemicals, some of which are banned. Journal de l’Environnement reports

The French NGO Générations Futures released the results of an inquiry into chemical contamination in food products on Tuesday (22 September). After examining the contaminants in strawberries in July 2013, the NGO published a report this week entitled “EXPPERT 5“, examining lettuce, the fourth most popular vegetable in France.

The findings were less than impressive: of the 31 products bought in supermarkets in the French departments of the Oise and the Somme, grown on conventional farms, over 77% contained traces of at least two pesticides, and only 19% were pesticide-free.

The average pesticide residue was 0.549 milligrams per kilo sampled (mg/kg), but one product contained 4.467 mg/kg.

>>Read: France urges ‘quick action’ on endocrine disruptors

Among these pesticides, the NGO found several hormone disruptors. More than a third of the samples were contaminated by at least one of these substances. And of the ten most commonly found substances, seven are suspected of being hormone disruptors.

Five banned pesticides

In five of the samples (16%), Générations Futures also observed the presence of several banned pesticides, including DDT, which has been illegal in France since 1971. The other four other substances (cyproconazole, imidacloprid, mandipropamid and oxadiazon) are not licenced for the cultivation of lettuces.

But the question is whether the presence of unquantifiable traces of these substances necessarily means they have been used illegally, whether they were still present in the soil from pesticides used in the past, or occurred as a result of crop rotation.

“We just don’t know: maybe the DDT came from past use,” said the spokesperson of Génération Futures, François Veillerette.

>>Read: Commission, chemicals lobby deny delaying tactics over hormone disruptors

“As for the other four molecules, which can still be used on other agricultural products, the National Veterinary and Phytosanitary Investigations Unit of the French Directorate General for Food will have to take look. It is not impossible that there are instances of fraudulent use. As things stand, it is difficult to prove anything,” he added.

Questionable limits

Residue limits are measured on two different scales: Maximum Residue Levels (MRLs) and Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI). The first, expressed in milligrams per kilo, represents the maximum acceptable level of pesticides in a given product. The second, expressed in mg/kg of body weight, represents the maximum quantity of a substance that person can consume before it becomes a health risk. So one relates the product, and the other to the exposure of the population.

Perhaps the only positive finding of the NGO’s inquiry was that none of the substances discovered exceeded the MRL limit. But aside from the fact that MRLs are often called into question, particularly when they concern hormone disruptors that act at very low doses or in ‘cocktail effects’, the limits are often far higher for lettuces than for other fruits or vegetables.

For example, the MRL for the fungicide boscalid is 30 mg/kg for lettuce, but “5 mg/kg for leeks, 2 mg/kg for carrots, 0.5 mg/kg for rye and 0.05 mg/kg for asparagus! In these conditions, it is hardly surprising that the MRLs for salads are rarely exceeded (by between 1% and 2%), and not at all in our investigation,” the NGO said.

>>Read: Trade should trump health concerns in hormone disruptor debate, US tells EU

Générations Futures has called for the “scheduled withdrawal” of hormone disrupting pesticides. But the European Union is struggling to implement this “schedule”.

While the Commission has made a proposal on the withdrawal of these substances, the publication of their criteria is already two years behind schedule. With the ongoing negotiation of the free trade treaty with the United States (TTIP), pressure from the industry is mounting.

Agricultural groups counter-attack

The investigation was strongly criticised by the group Save French Fruit and Vegetables as a “pseudo-investigation”. Behind a “vast manipulation” aimed at “playing on people’s fears”, they saw “another attempt to destabilise French fruit and vegetable producers”.

One of the group’s complaints is that Générations Futures did not analyse the effects of copper, sometimes used as an organic fungicide. They said that accumulations of copper in the soil “degrade its microbial biodiversity and its fertility”.

François Veillerette recognised that “copper is not harmless to the environment, but that it is better to ingest a small amount of it” than the far more toxic substances found in the EXPPERT 5 investigation.

This was originally published by EURACTIV France.

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