Hundreds of thousands of Indiana families depending on the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children could be eating state-approved food products that contain hazardous pesticides.
Indiana’s State Department of Health said it does not set standards for pesticides or herbicides in food selected for the WIC program, potentially exposing families to chemicals linked to cancer and other adverse health conditions.
WIC is a federally funded program meant to provide nutritional support for low income women during and after pregnancy and children under 5 years of age.
The federal government allocates billions of dollars for the program but delegates the administration of the WIC program to state and local agencies. Those entities are required to follow federal guidelines for items like staffing standards, vendor lobbying restrictions and nutrition requirements.
Hoosiers who qualify for WIC program assistance have a set amount of food types and quantities they can receive. The general categories and amounts are set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service. The USDA delegates decision-making power for other aspects of the WIC program to the states.
ISDH runs the Indiana WIC program for the state’s 262,000 enrolled families. The agency has the power to make many decisions about the program’s implementation, including which vendors can accept WIC funds and which food products can be involved in the program.
“Food selections are based on the supplemental foods listed in the federal regulations,” ISDH public affairs director Jeni O’Malley told the Indiana Environmental Reporter in an e-mail. “The foods listed in the IN WIC Program Booklet are the Indiana WIC foods allowed through the Federal WIC program. Approved foods are listed in a UPC database, and, using the Indiana WIC electronic benefits card, the WIC client can purchase Indiana WIC-allowed foods.”
The Indiana WIC program takes considerations like availability, cost and nutritional benefit into account when choosing a product, but it does not make inquiries about the product’s manufacturing or ingredient procurement.
That could potentially hide the use of legal but potentially hazardous substances like glyphosate.
Glyphosate is the main ingredient in one of the world’s most popular herbicides, Roundup. The chemical has been linked to several types of cancers and tumors in people who directly used the product, including a 41% increase in the risk of contracting non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Glyphosate has also been linked to shortened pregnancies and underdeveloped newborns.
In 2018, the Environmental Working Group tested dozens of oat-based food products marketed to children, including some that are part of the state of Indiana’s approved WIC food list. The group’s scientists found that 43 out of 45 products tested positive for glyphosate. A second round of testing found glyphosate in 28 new products.
The presence of glyphosate and other pesticides in WIC approved food could have disastrous health consequences for generations of Hoosiers.
“We can’t wait 140 years to find out if we have ruined a generation of children who look normal at birth, but will grow up to have diseases and will transmit these diseases to their descendants,” Dr. Paul Winchester, director of neonatology at St. Francis Hospital in Indianapolis told the Indiana Environmental Reporter. “It’s not OK to do nothing!”
Winchester, who is also professor of clinical pediatrics at Riley Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis, says glyphosate and other pesticides have been found in virtually all food products but government agencies have been reluctant to conclusively study the link between glyphosate and the extent of adverse health conditions.
“We discovered that Hoosier IVF success, birth defects, premature births and even (Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress) scores correlate with peak pesticide months, and now find these pesticides are endemic,” Winchester said. “The question to be asked is, ‘Before you expose every fetal human being to your chemical, shouldn’t we know that it is safe?’”
Winchester says residue in foods should be tested by non-industry laboratories with transgenerational epigenetic models, or studying how the residues affect gene expressions over generations. He says the reluctance to ensure glyphosate’s safety could come from the negative economic effect that could happen if a definitive link between glyphosate and cancer is found by scientists.
“When pesticides get accused, farmers get defensive. I grew up on a ranch, so I can relate, but we must know if these residues are safe,” Winchester said. “If the residues are safe we can breathe a sigh of relief. But bullying those of us who are concerned and stonewalling science leads to the rage which is now being expressed in jury trials. Why didn’t they tell us?”
California juries recently sided with the plaintiffs in three major court cases. In each case, the jury determined that the company which created Roundup, Monsanto Company, knew the weed killer could cause cancer but continued to keep it on the market. The juries awarded the plaintiffs billions of dollars in total compensation.
Monsanto Company was acquired by German pharmaceutical company Bayer AG in July 2018. By mid-May 2019, Bayer AG stock lost 44% of its value. Hundreds, if not thousands, of lawsuits against the company have been filed and are awaiting trial.
Despite the number of opponents growing, Bayer AG and the farmers who depend on glyphosate-based pesticides to maximize their crop yields still have a powerful ally – the Trump administration.
EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler announced in April that the EPA would stand by its finding that glyphosate is not a carcinogen and does not cause a public health risks when used as labeled.
“EPA has found no risks to public health from the current registered uses of glyphosate,” Wheeler said.
Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue spoke on the practical necessity of glyphosate.
“If we are going to feed 10 billion people by 2050, we are going to need all the tools at our disposal, which includes the use of glyphosate,” Perdue said.
People concerned with the EPA’s glyphosate registration can provide comments on the decision until July 5.