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Four out of five people tested positive for a highly toxic chemical found in Cheerios, Quaker Oats, and other oat-based products, according to a new peer-reviewed study by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). 

Chlormequat chloride is a pesticide used as a plant growth regulator on grain crops imported into the U.S. and is currently being evaluated for expanded use by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 

In the EWG’s study, researchers detected chlormequat in 77 of 96 urine samples from 2017 to 2023—with levels in 2023 significantly higher than previous years’ samples. The group also tested 25 samples of non-organic oat-based foods from U.S. grocery stores, including Quaker Oats and Cheerios. All but two samples, or 92%, contained chlormequat. 

The pesticide has been found increasingly in breakfast staples because companies import oats grown on farms in Canada where chlormequat is allowed to be used. The only two products that did not have detectable levels of the pesticide were 365 Whole Foods Market Fruit & Nut Muesli and Kellogg’s Special K Fruit & Yogurt, Fox Business reported

The EWG is a nonprofit organization focusing on outdated legislation, harmful agricultural practices, and industry loopholes that “pose a risk to our health and the health of our environment.” 

“Animal studies link chlormequat to reduced fertility, harm to the reproductive system, and altered fetal growth,” the organization said in a news release. According to the paper, toxicological studies show that even exposure to chlormequat below the allowable daily intake levels can reduce fertility, delay puberty, and harm a developing fetus. 

EPA Poised To Allow Higher Levels of Chlormequat Pesticide Residue in Grains

Although the EPA told the New York Post it was reviewing the EWG’s study, it is also considering an application by Taminco, a subsidiary of Eastman Chemical Company that manufactures chlormequat, that would allow U.S. farmers to use the chemical on their crops. 

The company says chlormequat helps increase crop yields by making the grains stand upright so they’re easier to harvest. In the European Union, UK, and Canada, chlormequat is already authorized for use in food crops such as wheat, oats, and barley. 

The EPA in 2018 published acceptable food tolerance levels of the pesticide for imported oats, wheat, barley, and some animal products—allowing grains containing the chemical to find their way into the U.S. food supply. 

The highest levels of pesticide residue currently allowed in imported wheat, barley, and oats are 3 parts per million (ppm), 2 ppm, and 10 ppm, respectively. In 2021, Taminco asked the EPA to allow 8 ppm of chlormequat residue for barley. The company updated its request in 2023, asking the EPA to allow 40 ppm of chlormequat for oats, 5 ppm for wheat and triticale, and 0.2 ppm for meat byproducts. 

The EPA, in April 2023, started collecting public comments on its proposed decision to allow chlormequat to be used by farmers to “increase crop yields.” The agency is also considering increasing the permitted amount of the chemical in imported oats. 

EPA Ignores Research Showing Harms of Chlormequat

Before issuing its proposed decision, the EPA claims it assessed whether exposures to chlormequat would cause” unreasonable adverse effects” to humans or the environment. Its review found no “dietary, residential, or aggregate (i.e., combined dietary and residential exposures) risks of concern.” Yet even the Center for Food Safety and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) have raised concerns

The AAP believes that the EPA’s proposed decision to approve the requested tolerances for chlormequat on food crops will negatively affect the health and well-being of infants and children,” the group wrote in a May 25 letter. 

The EWG, in its study, claims the EPA’s “research” disregarded critical studies on chlormequat toxicity in animals, especially those involving the male reproductive system and developing fetus.

Chlormequat’s effect on fertility is significant given declining birth rates in the U.S. According to data by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, infertility affects 1 in 5, or 19%, of women aged 15 to 49 with no prior births. About 1 in 4 women, or 26%, may get pregnant but have trouble carrying a pregnancy to term. Approximately 9% of men in 2018 struggled with infertility

More recent reproductive toxicity studies show the pesticide may delay the onset of puberty, reduce sperm motility, decrease the weight of male reproductive organs, reduce testosterone levels, and dysregulate fetal growth and metabolism during pregnancy. 

Many American children consume Cheerios and common cereals containing oats, wheat, and other grains that will be directly affected by the EPA’s decision. Individuals should take steps now to protect their health and their children’s health by avoiding non-organic grain-based products that may contain harmful pesticide residues. 

Megan Redshaw

Megan Redshaw

Megan is an attorney and journalist with additional expertise in natural health. She has a flare for breaking down complex and controversial topics into easy-to-synthesize and entertaining pieces that empower others to make informed decisions.

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