For many busy families, a favorite on-the-go healthy breakfast is whole grain cereal.

Yet earlier this summer, an environmental activist group claimed it found samples of Cheerios cereal that tested positive for trace amounts of a pesticide.

Fear-mongering news always makes great click-bait on social media. However, experts say we shouldn’t let publicity stunts or worries about pesticides stop us from eating our favorite healthy foods, including our beloved Cheerios.

It turns out, the pesticide levels these activists claim to have found are extremely small, in parts per billion, and are well below safe levels established by federal agencies, explains Joel Coats, a professor of entomology and expert on toxicology at Iowa State University.

To put it in perspective, parts per billion is comparable to a drop of water in an Olympic-size swimming pool.

“I basically ignore those (activist claims) and advise our kids and grandkids to eat their Cheerios,” Coats says. “(Federal agencies) set these pesticide tolerance levels to be very conservative, and any trace amounts (found) are extremely low or well below any limit that would exceed the safe limits.”

Coats explains that federal agencies have strict restrictions and monitoring in place to ensure that our food is safe from pesticides and other contaminants.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) pesticide monitoring program, which tests for 700 different pesticide residues, is considered the “gold standard” for testing by scientists worldwide.

In its most recent report, the FDA found that 99% of domestic foods tested in fiscal year 2016 were well below the safe level for pesticides residues. And more than 52% of foods tested had no detectable levels of pesticides.

It’s one of the many reasons why the U.S. food supply is considered the safest in the world.

If a food product does test above FDA’s safe limit for pesticide residues, then the food is removed from the food supply.

“Very rarely is there something in the news about something exceeding those levels,” Coats says. “The percentage they find over the (safety) limit is extraordinarily small. If it is frequent, and they see a habitual offender, the (FDA) addresses the problem immediately.”

Coats adds that, in reality, we are all exposed to chemicals every day in small doses. However, our bodies are naturally good at detoxifying and screening chemicals out of our systems, he says.

“If you look at our diet, there are 100 different chemicals in coffee, or anything else, that we are exposed to every day. When we pump gas, we are exposed to small amounts of chemicals,” Coats says.

“But toxicologists all swear by one dogma: The dose makes the poison. So some (chemical) at a very low level is not toxic at all, but at a high dose, it can be a serious concern.”

Chemicals, including pesticides and fungicides, are necessary tools in agriculture and food production, Coats explains.

Without pesticides, farmers would lose a significant portion of their crops, which would create food waste and rising costs at the grocery store.

Pesticides also help protect food safety. For example, insect damage to an ear of corn can make the grain more susceptible to fungus that is toxic to people and farm animals, Coats says.

Pesticides and fungicides also help with the safe, long-term storage of important crops, such as potatoes or apples, which are susceptible to mold when taken out of refrigeration. “That’s a case where the health benefits (of fruits and vegetables) can go downhill,” he says.

All pesticides must be approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and are rigorously tested to prove their safety to human health and the environment. 

Coats notes that the “next generation” pesticides farmers use today are more effective and safer for people, wildlife and water quality than those used 20 or more years ago.

Farmers follow strict rules about how much and which pesticides they can use on selected crops, he adds.

Withdrawal restrictions also ensure pesticides aren’t applied immediately before harvest, which minimizes the risk of carryover to the food supply. It is a violation of federal law to use a pesticide in a manner inconsistent with its label directions.

Here in Iowa, farmers and their employees must be certified pest applicators to use pesticides. Education and testing on the safe use of pesticides is administered to all licensed pesticide applicators by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) in conjunction with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.

The IDAL’s Pesticide Bureau is responsible for responding to complaints and investigating potential misuse of pesticides. 

“People can trust that the federal safeguards are there to make sure (pesticides) are safe for people working with them and for their families, communities and environment, as well as the end product to consumers,” Coats says.

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