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Little follow-up when FDA finds high levels of perchlorate in food

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director and Maricel Maffini, Ph.D., Consultant

FDA’s apparent lack of follow-up when faced with jaw-dropping levels of a toxic chemical in food is disturbing.

For more than 40 years, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has conducted the Total Diet Study (TDS) to monitor levels of approximately 800 pesticides, metals, and other contaminants, as well as nutrients in food. The TDS’s purposes are to “track trends in the average American diet and inform the development of interventions to reduce or minimize risks, when needed.” By combining levels of chemicals in food with food consumption surveys, the TDS data serve a critical role in estimating consumers’ exposure to chemicals.

From 2004 to 2012 (except for 2007), FDA collects and tests about 280 food types for perchlorate, a chemical known to disrupt thyroid hormone production. This information is very important, because for the many pregnant women and children with low iodine intake, even transient exposure to high levels of perchlorate can impair brain development.

The agency published updates on food contamination and consumers’ exposure to perchlorate in 2008 (covering years 2004-2006) and in 2016 (covering 2008-2012). On its Perchlorate Questions and Answers webpage, FDA says it found “no overall change in perchlorate levels across foods” in samples collected between 2008 and 2012 compared to those collected between 2005 and 2006. It also notes that there were higher average levels in some food and lower in others between the time periods and suggests that a larger sampling size or variances in the region or season when the samples were collected may account for the differences.

FDA’s Q&A webpage masks the most disturbing part of the story

FDA’s attempt at providing consumers with information about the presence of a toxic chemical in food and what it means for their health falls short. By focusing on the similar average level of perchlorate across foods, FDA masks the disturbing fact that children are consuming increasing amounts of perchlorate: 35% for infants, 23% for toddlers and 12% for children between 2 and 6 from 2004-2006 to 2008-2012. The agency’s webpage notes the exposures in 2008-2012 but fails to mention the increase reported by its own scientists.

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