As I am about to attack the data and over-hyping of a scientific report, let me state my own credentials. I am not a scientist by profession. Everything stated in this article has been learned via reading reports from scientists. My sources have been linked (thank you, html, for making citations so much easier for the author and the reader). I am a scientist-like, however, in that I am constantly examining the world around me and asking “why?”. So, when a report came out that our iconic breakfast cereals contain “large traces” (more on that oxymoron later) of glyphosate I wanted to know more. What I found will shock you! First a word from our sponsor…
Seriously, though, calm the heck down. The report from the Environmental Working Group is available here. First rule of science inquiry in the age of the internet: read the original source. Read it for yourself and start asking questions. The first question I asked was, “How much did they find?” Toxicity is determined by dose, so the amount found is important. Oh crap, look at Quaker Old Fashioned Oats! 1300! Wilford Brimley should be more concerned with cancer than the diabeetus! Except, units of measurement are important. This study lists their findings in ppb. That’s parts per billion.
A part per billion is, according to the National Environmental Services Center at the University of West Virginia, “…one part in 1 billion. 1 ppb = 1 µg/L = 1/1 billion = 0.000000001” As an example, contaminants in drinking water are typically measured in ppm, or parts per million. The difference between ppm and ppb is highlighted in this example from the NESC, discussing arsenic in drinking water: “Take the inorganic chemical arsenic, for example. On January 23, 2006, the maximum contamination level (MCL) will be 0.010 ppm or mg/L. The MCL also can be stated as 10 ppb or µg/L. It is important to get the units straight because it could possibly mean the difference between the system violating the MCL or not.”
So, these numbers from a study of glyphosate in cereals are incredibly small. But, if the numbers were arsenic in drinking water, they would be very bad. This isn’t a study of arsenic in drinking water, though. Remember “toxicity is determined by dose”. Too much of just about everything can be toxic. Now that the reader of the EWG report knows the units being discussed, the next inquiry should be regarding what the safe level of exposure is. The EPA level for glyphosate in drinking water is 700ppb. By that measure, only three types of oatmeal tested by the EWG are in the danger zone. There is, however, a problem with comparing the medium of breakfast cereal (a solid food made from grain) to drinking water. How a substance is introduced to the body is just as important as how much is introduced. Eating common table salt on your food is very different from drinking seawater.
Still unsure of what the safe level of glyphosate in solid foods might be, I did more research. The EPA lists the safe level of daily intake at 1.75mg per kg of bodyweight, or 1,750 micrograms if put into ppb terms. For a 35lb toddler that is 27,825 micrograms. Adults weighing 150lbs could take in 119,000 micrograms, and a 200lb individual could, according to EPA safety levels, take in 158,725 micrograms of glyphosate. The NWG study listed 780 ppb in Dinosaur Oatmeal Quaker Instant Oats. A single packet of that oatmeal is 43 grams, or 0.043kg. That means, according to the NWG study, that a single packet of those oats has 30 micrograms of Roundup. Sounds, gross, yes, but your toddler would need to eat more than 927 packets of instant oatmeal to reach her daily allowed dosage of glyphosate. I’d like to submit that if your toddler is eating that much oatmeal, you have much bigger problems than Roundup contamination. Also, my sympathies regarding your grocery bill.
But wait, you might be saying, the EPA isn’t exactly known for high standards--just ask the people along the Animas River in Colorado. Fair point. So, I applied the EWG’s numbers for toxicity, the California NSRL, and the EU’s numbers, all of which are lower than the EPA’s levels. The EU has a safe maximum ingestion limit of 300 micrograms/kg of body weight. For the above-mentioned toddler, that’s 4,770 micrograms, or, 159 packets of the Dinosaur Oatmeal. The California number is 15.7 micrograms/kg of body weight. Our sample toddler would only have to consume 8.3 packets (per day) of the oatmeal before reaching toxic levels. The NWG has taken that even further: “Additionally, because children and developing fetuses have increased susceptibility to carcinogens, the federal Food Quality Protection Act supports including an additional 10-fold margin of safety. With this additional children’s health safety factor, EWG calculated that a one-in-a-million cancer risk would be posed by ingestion of 0.01 milligrams of glyphosate per day.” That works out to a safe exposure of 0.143 micrograms / kg of body weight, or, an amount for our toddler of 2.27ppb. No cereal (or drinking water, eggs, or going outside) for you!
Where did the EWG get their starting number of 15.7 micrograms/kg? Per their posted study, “In 2017, California listed glyphosate in its Proposition 65 registry of chemicals known to cause cancer. The state’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, or OEHHA, has proposed a so-called No Significant Risk Level for glyphosate of 1.1 milligrams per day for an average adult of about 154 pounds. That level of exposure is more than 60 times lower than the safety level set by the Environmental Protection Agency.” (Math check: 154lbs = 69.9kg 1.1mg/69.9kg = .0157mg/1kg = 15.7ppb) The California decision was prompted by an International Agency for Research on Cancer finding that glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic to humans”. Here is a link to more information about how California set their number. If a respected international organization found that glyphosate is toxic to humans, why haven’t the EU or the EPA reduced their “safe exposure” limits? Oh, because “the International Agency for Research on Cancer remains, therefore, the only agency with a divergent view [on the carcinogenic status of glyphosate].”
Which brings us back to why this study is gaining so much media attention. This is all about timing. There was a similar study, also not peer reviewed, done in 2016 about levels of glyphosate found in breakfast foods. A savvy reader will note wide variances between that study and the new EWG study. That is probably due to testing samples and specific methodologies. The 2016 report gained barely a mention on social media. But this week, the EWG’s reports are blowing up headlines across the Internet and on TV news shows precisely because a California jury just decided that Roundup caused a gentleman’s cancer. Fresh on that alarming news, the idea that our breakfast cereals are soaked in carcinogens was sure to inflame the populace. Inflame it has, and, as usual, beyond all means of educated skepticism or inquiry.
This tweet is especially popular.
What, exactly, is meant by “large traces”? They are literally parts per billion but since there are 750 (or 1300) that’s a large amount of small things? A copywriter can’t make a viral meme with “trace amounts of a possibly, according to one agency, dangerous chemical found on Cheerios”. That’s not alarming enough! Think of the toddlers gobbling down all of that Dinosaur Oatmeal! (As an aside, my kids lived on that stuff for the first 10 years of their lives. I’m more alarmed by the amount of sugar in the stuff than the (large!) traces of Roundup.) Except, as discussed previously, the amounts are not at all alarming. The trace amounts could be described as “ginormous” (a word popular with kids) and still not be either accurate or dangerous.
Why would the Environmental Working Group want to unnecessarily agitate consumers about (potentially) harmful chemicals in their breakfast foods? The answer is apparent in the language of their report. Right after their table listing the offending foods and their ppb inclusion of glyphosate is an action-box where readers can demand that cereal companies remove glyphosate from their products. How exactly the companies should go about doing this remains purposefully nebulous. I will extend the group the benefit of the doubt and presume that their motives are entirely altruistic. They sincerely believe that pesticides are carcinogens and should be eliminated from the planet. I don’t agree with that goal, but if they had some decent science to back up their claims, I’d be much more open to the argument. Using inflammatory language, and inflating their numbers through unit manipulation, to prey upon the fears of parents is a despicable corruption of scientific inquiry.
So, despite what your second cousin’s best friend has asserted on Facebook when she re-posted this study, you should not be worried about the bowl of oatmeal you just fed little Billy. At least, you shouldn’t worry about the minuscule amounts of glyphosate residue he or she just ingested. The sugar and carbohydrate amounts, well that’s a subject best left for tomorrow.