A large majority of Americans are exposed to a little-known chemical used in crops that poses a risk to reproductive and developmental health.
A small study by the Environmental Working Group found that four in five Americans (or 80 percent) tested positive for chlormequat, a pesticide used to help crops grow.
In some studies, chlormequat has been linked to reduced fertility, damage to the reproductive system, and disturbances in fetal development.
And due to health concerns, it is banned for use on food crops in the United States.
However, the United States allows the importation of foods from other countries that use chlormequat in food crops, meaning Americans could be exposed to it.
The research analyzed urine samples from 96 people between 2017 and 2023 and found the chemical in 77 samples.
Particularly concerning, the researchers said, was that they found higher levels and more frequent detections in 2023 than between 2017 and 2022, indicating that exposure to the dangerous chemical is increasing.
In 2017, chlormequat was detected in 69 percent of urine samples. Between 2018 and 2022 the detection level was 74 percent and in 2023, the detection level was 90 percent.
When testing popular food products, the study also revealed that chlormequat was in 92 percent of oat-based foods purchased in May 2023, including Quaker Oats and Cheerios cereals.
Additionally, because chlormequat leaves the body quickly (within 24 hours), the findings suggest that exposure to the substance is nearly constant.
The study’s lead author, Dr. Alexis Temkin, a toxicologist at EWG, saying: ‘The new EWG study on chlormequat is the first of its kind in the US.
“The ubiquity of this little-studied pesticide in people raises alarm about how it could cause harm without anyone even knowing they’ve consumed it.”
In 2017, the detection level was 69 percent. Between 2018 and 2022 the level was 74 percent and in 2023, the detection level was 90 percent.
When testing popular food products, the study also revealed that chlormequat was found in 92 percent of oat-based foods purchased in May 2023, including Quaker Oats and Cheerios cereals.
The researchers tested seven organic and 13 non-organic food products, as well as nine wheat-based products.
Chlormequat was detected in 92 percent of non-organic oat-based products, while only two samples of wheat-based foods had low levels.
Only one of the seven organic products had low levels of the substance.
In animal studies, chlormequat has been linked to fertility problems and has been shown to pose a risk to fetal development.
In a study of the pesticide’s effects on rats, clormequat was found to delay the onset of puberty, reduce sperm motility, shrink male reproductive organs, and decrease testosterone levels.
Additional studies have shown that exposure to clormequat during pregnancy could alter the growth and metabolism of the fetus.
Temkin said: ‘The federal government has a vital role in ensuring that pesticides are properly monitored, studied and regulated.
“Yet, EPA continues to abdicate its responsibility to protect children from potential health harms caused by toxic chemicals like chlormequat in food.”
Chlormequat is a pesticide that farmers use to help increase the amount of crops they grow.
A report from the nonprofit As You Sow evaluated the efforts 17 food companies have made to reduce pesticides and gave them grades. None of the companies obtained a score higher than a C
Currently, the chemical is only allowed for ornamental plants, not food crops.
While the pesticide is not allowed on food crops in the US, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations that were relaxed during the Trump administration in 2018 allowed the importation of food from countries that allow the use of chlormequat in food crops, meaning Americans are exposed to the chemical in some products.
In 2020, the Trump administration increased the amount allowed.
Under the Biden administration in April 2023, the EPA proposed allowing the chemical to be used for the first time on food crops in the United States.
The EPA said using chlormequat would help with crop lodging – bending and breaking crop stems, making it difficult to harvest and significantly reducing a crop’s growth.
Because chlormequat is a plant growth regulator, it may decrease stem height, reduce lodging, and increase crop yield.
The research was published Thursday in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology.