Science - October 7, 2004

Bickering about residues

Critical environmental organisations such as Milieudefensie publish warnings of pesticide residues on fruit and vegetables in supermarkets, which according to their own measurements, occur in impermissible and unhealthy amounts. Not so, says Rikilt the Wageningen research institute for food safety, in article on its website: public health is not endangered.

Environmental and critical consumer organisations regularly publish the results of their own analyses of pesticides residues on fruit and vegetables on the website www.weetwatjeeet.nl (know what you eat). According to their data, one in five imported products contains more toxins than guidelines permit. Citrus fruit, lettuce, chilli peppers and sweet peppers score high. According to calculations made by these organisations, the high levels mean that people consuming these products ingest more pesticides than permitted. It is on this point, according to Jacob van Klaveren of Rikilt, that the critical organisations’ story no longer holds water.

‘There’s nothing wrong with the measurements made by Milieudefensie, and that the levels are exceeded is not good. This situation cannot be allowed to continue. But has this led to a situation where the public health is in danger? In our publication we argue that this is not the case. The organisations always assume the worst-case scenario. We take into account how much polluted fruit and vegetables people actually eat, and if you do that, then the risks are not that high at all.’

Wouter van Eck, who leads the Milieudefensie campaign, does not agree with Rikilt’s calculations. ‘We have found substances that should not be in food at all, such as pyridaben. According to the law there is no safe amount for consumption, but Rikilt acts as though there is. It would appear that Rikilt is using norms from the time when pyridaben was permitted, but these are outdated.’

Not so says Van Klaveren. ‘The law forbids pyridaben, but that does not mean that all quantities are a risk to health. We have used toxicological data to estimate the dangers, and our figures are not outdated.’

Van Klaveren and Van Eck are in agreement however on one point. ‘Rikilt assumes in its analyses that possible danger comes from only one substance at a time,’ continues Van Eck. ‘Rikilt forgets that people often consume more than one substance at the same time, and that you therefore have to look at the combined effect of different pesticides and any other substances that are not supposed to be in food.’

Van Klaveren refers to Van Eck’s comment as ‘conceptually correct’, but adds that the models used to calculate cumulative effect are still in their infancy. ‘It is also important to agree upon the level of risk we are prepared to accept,’ says Van Klaveren. ‘Technically you can calculate all sorts of things, but Milieudefensie interprets results very differently from the Food Centre.’ / WK

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