It might not be rocket science, but researchers are stumped as to why perchlorate—a component of rocket fuel—is showing up in municipal and bottled water, lettuce and milk.
The Food and Drug Administration commissioned a study that analyzed perchlorate levels in 150 samples of lettuce and 120 samples of milk from 15 states between Dec. 23, 2003 and Aug. 19, 2004. The chemical, which has been shown to cause thyroid damage in humans, was detected in nearly every sample, whether the product was organically or conventionally grown.
"This is rocket fuel that has somehow spread throughout our land," said George Siemon, CEO of Organic Valley Family of Farms. "That's far out."
Siemon questioned how the chemical came to be so pervasive. "Is it in the rain, then? Is it from airplanes? ? How does a corn field in Wisconsin get perchlorate if it travels upstream?"
According to FDA's Web site, "Perchlorate might get into plants when they are irrigated with perchlorate-containing water or when plants are grown in soil that has been previously exposed to perchlorate-containing water or fertilizer."
Perchlorate is commonly used in explosives at military bases and as fuel at rocket launch sites, as well as in bombs, fireworks and gun ammunition. The FDA says it also has numerous industrial applications, such as leather tanning and rubber manufacturing.
"Perchlorate contamination appears to be a problem across all agriculture, whether conventional or organic methods are employed," said Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association. "While perchlorate was detected in organic lettuce and milk, there is no reason to believe that this is exclusively an organic concern."
"Organics has never claimed to be pure food," Siemon said, "but we know the consumer sees it that way, so this is very serious. ? We try to do everything we can, to be ahead of the curve."
Louise Hemstead, Organic Valley's chief operating officer, noted that the company has no farms in Maryland, the state where high levels of perc were detected in organic milk. "Organic Valley has a testing program in place that has consistently found our organic milk's perchlorate levels to be at or below the allowable drinking limit of 6 parts per billion," she said.
The limit Hemstead cites is not accepted by all parties, however. California adopted that limit in March, but the Environmental Protection Agency is recommending that the maximum exposure should be 1 ppb, especially for children and pregnant or nursing women. Thyroid problems resulting from perchlorate exposure have been linked to stunted growth and physical development and low IQ.
Perchlorate levels in milk the FDA studied ranged from 3.16 ppb in conventional whole milk from Arizona and 3.2 ppb in organic whole milk from Washington, to 11.3 ppb in the organic whole milk from Maryland. In lettuce, the range for samples that had quantifiable levels was 1 ppb (for green leaf lettuce from Salinas, Calif.) to 71.6 (iceberg lettuce from Belle Glade, Fla.).
"Right now the National Academies of Science is reviewing EPA's [reference dose]," said a spokesman from the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. "That's one of the prime things we're waiting on ? [to] find out whether there is a health issue here or now."
He added that there's no need to panic just yet. "The sampling we've done isn't representative of all the produce nationwide."
Siemon couldn't agree more. He says retailers need to be fair when talking to consumers, and acknowledge that perchlorate is present in many foods. "To me, it's always about honest education, not reading a press release and putting up a sign in your store saying 'Don't buy milk.' ? Having a retailer say 'Buy soy instead' is irresponsible. ? They can say, 'Here's the danger of perchlorates, here's the average perchlorate level in all these food groups.'"
The FDA plans to analyze perchlorate levels for spinach, tomatoes, carrots and cantaloupe in the coming year.
That's good news for people like Siemon. "You've got a society that's polluted by lack of government oversight, and when [the news of contamination] comes out, they lay it on organics." But the threat, he said, is not just to the integrity of organics. "It's also a challenge [to] the integrity of food. ? We keep getting attacked by the savagery of the federal oversight of our environment."
Siemon said he hopes to see the government do a lot more research into perchlorates—where they come from, how they're concentrated, why they're so pervasive. "We need to understand how it travels. Is it so widespread that we need to tell people to [take supplements] to take it out of their system? What is the world we need to build around this? ? What's the real threat?"
But consumers and retailers alike need to look at the big picture, he said. "We have to take a holistic view of our food now, and organics is crucial ? but it's not the whole story."