Suspect Salads in Supermarkets

by Mary E. Alexander

Most people consider a leafy green salad to be a healthy food choice, but a new study suggests that some lettuce might actually be bad for you. The reason? It’s contaminated with high levels of toxic rocket fuel from polluted water in the western United States.

The disturbing discovery was made by an environmental research group that tested different kinds of supermarket lettuce. It found that four of 22 samples – nearly one in five – had detectable levels of the toxic substance, called perchlorate. The lettuce was grown in January and February in Southern California and Arizona, which produce most of the lettuce sold in the United States between October and March.

“Our findings … show that toxic rocket fuel is not just a regional problem in areas where drinking water is contaminated, but a national concern for anyone who eats winter lettuce,” said Renee Sharp of the Environmental Working Group (EWG), co-author of the report Suspect Salads. “To protect people from perchlorate not just in water but food, safety standards will have to be much tougher than what’s currently proposed.”

Perchlorate, which is the explosive part of rocket and missile fuel, already is known to contaminate more than 500 drinking water sources in 20 states, according to the EWG. Most of the contamination came from military bases or plants operated by federal defense contractors.

The EWG’s lettuce tests, the first ever done on supermarket produce, confirmed that the toxic fuel can get into food through polluted water used to irrigate crops.

“This shows that perchlorate makes it through the packaging and production process and onto grocery story shelves,” Bill Walker, the group’s West Coast vice president, told the San Jose Mercury News.

Perchlorate is a health hazard because it disrupts the thyroid gland’s ability to make necessary hormones. In fetuses, infants and children, that can lead to terrible consequences, including lowered IQ, mental retardation, and loss of hearing and speech.

The EWG estimates that by eating lettuce, 1.6 million American women of childbearing age are exposed daily during the winter months to more perchlorate than the federal government’s recommended safe dose.

Currently, the Environmental Protection Agency says a safe dose is equal to one part per billion in drinking water, although the standard is preliminary and isn’t legally enforceable. Suspect Salads found perchlorate levels in the contaminated lettuce were four times higher than the current federal guideline.

Based on its research, the EWG recommended the national safety standard be set at 0.1 part per billion – one-tenth of the current level. The group also called for an immediate federal investigation of perchlorate in America’s food supply, a demand echoed by U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer of California.

“The federal government already is woefully behind in addressing perchlorate contamination in drinking water,” Senator Boxer said in a letter to the Food and Drug Administration. “We need to know if our food is contaminated with this toxic substance and from where this contamination is coming.”