Two stories from the food policy website Civil Eats caught my eye recently. If you like these kinds of stories, consider a subscription to support their reporting on food system issues. I do!
Who hasn't heard about the high levels of toxins found in moss samples surrounding two glass factories in Portland, and then the devastating results of air pollution studies in the metro area? An article on Civil Eats about the city's soil crisis echoed a question I'd had, and that was: If the air and the soil around those factories is polluted, what about my friends in those neighborhoods who garden and raise vegetables to feed their families?
It's hard to think that those leafy green lettuces, juicy red tomatoes and carrots might be contaminated, too. Writer Elizabeth Grossman queried Portland public officials about these concerns and got a disturbing answer. She writes, "Oregon health and environmental authorities have admitted 'it is difficult to say for sure.' They’ve…recommended that people should avoid eating produce grown within a half-mile of the highest mapped metal concentrations until further notice."
Having your soil tested for heavy metals is an expensive process, and Grossman reports that while the EPA has guidelines for levels of heavy metals at toxic waste sites, it has no guidelines for garden soils. The article recommends that if gardeners want to grow vegetables, mitigation efforts include deep raised beds filled with clean soil and compost, and keeping those beds away from roof drip lines that could wash contaminated particles into the soil.
Grossman winds up by asking about the health effects of eating vegetables from contaminated areas and coming into contact with contaminated soil. "Children, says Tulane [University School of Medicine research professor Howard] Mielke, are 'extraordinarily sensitive.' He says there’s not enough research into exposure to soil contaminants so available information is limited. 'You get the runaround with people saying it’s probably safe,' when it may not be, he says. Mielke calls the soil information gap 'enormous.'"
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It's a good news/bad news situation regarding herbicides, at least when it comes to glyphosate, the main ingredient in Monsanto's Roundup, the most widely used herbicide in the world. An article on Civil Eats by Carey Gilliam starts off with the bad news: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has never tested foods like soybeans, corn, milk and eggs for residues from this herbicide, much less established guidelines for how much, if any, might be safe.
Gilliams reports the good news is that, as a direct result of a recent declaration by experts at the World Health Organization that glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen, the FDA is going to start testing for residues of the herbicide on certain foods. She writes that "the FDA’s move comes amid growing public concern about the safety of the herbicide known as glyphosate, and comes after the U.S Government Accountability Office (GAO) rebuked the agency for failing to do such assessments and for not disclosing that short-coming to the public."
Additionally, she reports that "critics say several studies have linked glyphosate to human health ailments, including non-Hodgkin lymphoma and kidney and liver problems, and because glyphosate is so pervasive in the environment, even trace amounts can be harmful due to extended exposure." A U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) employee, who spoke under condition of anonymity, said that the FDA plans to initiate testing on corn and soybeans.