Chemical Linked to Reproductive Harm Found in 80% of Americans

Scientists detected chlormequat, a plant growth regulator, in four out of five people tested and in 92% of oat-based food products, including Cheerios and Quaker Oats.

In the United States, chlormequat chloride is a plant growth regulator only allowed for use on ornamental plants. However, in the European Union, United Kingdom, and Canada, chlormequat is used on grain crops, including wheat, oats, and barley.

In 2018, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) allowed the import of chlormequat-treated foods and grains after publishing its acceptable food tolerance levels for the chemical. This resulted in chlormequat entering the U.S. food supply via imported grains and food products.

Yet, animal studies have found links between chlormequat and reproductive harm. For example, a 2006 study found that the sperm of male mice exposed to the chemical were less able to fertilize an egg. More recent research on rats found that chlormequat exposure during pregnancy may disturb sperm motility in male offspring.

In humans, sperm counts have declined by roughly 50% over the past 50 years, and a recent report suggests that exposure to two common pesticides — organophosphates and N-methyl carbamates — may be a factor. However, the potential impacts of chlormequat on humans are largely unknown.

While scientists have detected concentrations of chlormequat in the urine of people living in the U.K. and Sweden — it's unclear whether individuals in the U.S. also have the agricultural chemical in their bodies.

To clarify this, researchers with the Environmental Working Group (EWG) tested urine samples from 96 people between 2017 and 2023 for the presence of chlormequat. The pilot study, published in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology, found that 77 participants had detectable levels of the chemical in their urine.

Moreover, the scientists detected chlormequat more frequently and at higher levels in 2023 than in previous years, suggesting that exposure to the chemical is rising among people in the U.S.

This increased exposure could be the result of the presence of chlormequat in common food products. In a 2022 EWG investigation, researchers tested popular oat-based foods for the presence of chlormequat and detected the chemical in 92% of these products. The results revealed that Cheerios, Quaker Oats, and Walmart Great Value Oats & Honey Granola had the highest concentrations of the plant growth regulator.

However, they did not find chlormequat in organic oat-based foods.

"Until the government fully protects consumers, you can reduce your exposure to chlormequat by choosing products made with organic oats, which are grown without synthetic pesticides such as chlormequat," the EWG said in a press release.

Are organic foods really pesticide and herbicide free?

Organic grains, fruits, and vegetables are grown under strict protocols that avoid synthetic herbicides, fertilizers, and pesticides. The benefits of eating organic foods may include improved nutrient intake and less exposure to potentially harmful chemicals. Still, organic food can be more expensive than conventionally grown products and might not fit everyone's budget.

In a previous report, experts suggest that herbicides such as glyphosate, AKA Roundup, are found in the rain that falls on organic crops, so even organic may not be entirely free from these chemicals. However, it's unclear whether chemicals like chlormequat could contaminate organic crops in similar ways.

Despite the potential for pesticide or herbicide contamination via rainfall or other environmental factors, 2020 research found that pesticide residue levels in organic food were five times lower than in conventional food.

What's more, in a 2021 investigation, scientists tested 100 organic and conventional fields for 46 pesticides and detected these chemicals in all sites, including 40 organic fields. However, pesticide residue concentrations were nine times higher in conventional fields compared to organic sites.

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