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Pesticide May Be Lurking in Your Oatmeal, New Study Finds

February 23, 2024

Even those of us who go out of our way to eat a clean, well-balanced diet full of produce, protein, and quality whole grains may be inadvertently exposing ourselves to harmful pesticides, according to a new study from the Environmental Working Group. 

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The study focuses on chlormequat chloride, a chemical that’s been used to regulate the growth of plants since the early 1960s. Chlormequat stunts the height of plant stems, which prevents bending and makes harvesting easier. 

In the U.S., chlormequat is only approved for use on ornamental house plants, not edible crops. But since 2018, the Environmental Protection Agency has allowed imports of grains treated with the substance from countries that do not regulate chlormequat use in agriculture. These countries include the European Union and Canada. 

EWG researchers studied the presence of chlormequat in urine samples in the U.S. They found a sharp increase in chlormequat concentrations from 69% in 2017 to 74% in 2018 to 2022, to 90% last year. 

Alex Formuzis, Senior VP of Communications & Strategic Campaigns at the EWG, attributes this sharp increase in chlormequat between 2022 and 2023 to the EPA’s 2018 decision. “The EPA only began allowing chlormequat on imported oats a few years ago, and it quickly raised the allowable amount, which is almost certainly the reason we are seeing higher concentrations of the chemical in oat-based foods,” he says. 

These oat-based foods include quick-cooking and old-fashioned oats, as well as processed cereals like Cheerios. 

The EWG is concerned about the increase in chlormequat in the US because of potential dangers the chemical can pose to reproductive health. “Studies in laboratory animals show that chlormequat can cause harm to the normal growth and development of the fetus and damage the reproductive system, which is cause for concern to human health,” Formuzis says. 

Formuzis warns that the growth of chlormequat may not be slowing any time soon. “Now the EPA is considering allowing the use of chlormequat on oats and other grains, such as wheat and barley, grown in the U.S.” he explains. “If that is allowed, the concentrations of chlormequat in the country’s food supply will only increase with more products containing potentially harmful levels of the toxic chemical.”

The best way to avoid food exposed to chlormequat and other pesticides is to “buy oats, oat cereals, and other oat-based products made with organic ingredients. Certified organic oats are, by law, grown without synthetic pesticides,” Formuzis says. 

Read next: Do You Really Need to Worry About Hormones In Your Milk? Experts Weigh In

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