Pesticides, Produce & The 2014 Dirty Dozen
Yesterday the Environmental Working Group released its annual report, the 2014 Shoppers Guide to Pesticides in Produce, which aims to help people eat healthy and reduce their exposure to pesticides. “EWG’s Shopper’s Guide helps people find conventional fruits and vegetables with low concentrations of pesticide residues,” said Sonya Lunder, EWG’s senior analyst and principle author of the report. “If a particular item is likely to be high in pesticides, people can go for organic.”
2014 Dirty Dozen & Clean Fifteen For more than a decade, the Environmental Working Group has been publishing a list of the “cleanest & dirtiest” produce, with regard to the presence of residual pesticide. Known as the “Dirty Dozen” and the “Clean Fifteen,” the list is a useful guide when selecting commercially-grown produce. The guide ranks 48 popular fruits and vegetables based on an analysis of 32,000 samples tested by U.S. Department of Agriculture and the federal Food and Drug Administration. To rank produce, EWG analysts use six metrics, including the total number of pesticides detected on a crop and the percent of samples tested with detectable pesticides. In the latest report, 65 percent of the samples analyzed tested positive for pesticide residues. The 2014 list was released yesterday, and for the fourth consecutive year, apples were ranked the most heavily-contaminated produce. Avocados were the cleanest, with only one percent of avocado samples showing any detectable pesticides. Here’s the rest of the winners (and losers):
(produce with the most residual pesticide)
7. Sweet Bell Peppers
8. Nectarines (imported)
10. Cherry Tomatoes
11. Snap Peas (imported)
Not-so-honorable mentions go to blueberries, lettuce, kale, plums & cherries.
(produce with the least residual pesticide)
2. Sweet Corn
5. Sweet Peas (frozen)
15. Sweet Potatoes
Honorable mentions go to mushrooms, honeydew melons and watermelon.
When you look at the lists you’ll notice a trend: in general, produce with a thin or edible skin tends to be the “dirtiest,” while produce with a thick or non-edible skin tends to be the “cleanest.” While this doesn’t hold true across the board, it is useful to remember that if you can peel off the skin or rind, it’s probably relatively “clean.” Why does this matter? Pesticides have been linked to a variety of health concerns, including cancer, hormone disruption and abnormal brain and nervous system development, among others. Studies by the National Cancer Institute found that American farmers, who in most respects are healthier than the population at large, had startling incidences of leukemia, Hodgkin’s disease, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and many other forms of cancer. According to the Institute, “some of these analyses have shown that people exposed to certain pesticides have an increased risk of developing certain cancers.” Furthermore, the EPA states that “laboratory studies show that pesticides can cause health problems, such as birth defects, nerve damage, cancer, and other effects that might occur over a long period of time. The health effects of pesticides depend on the type of pesticide. Some, such as the organophosphates and carbamates, affect the nervous system. Others may irritate the skin or eyes. Some pesticides may be carcinogens. Others may affect the hormone or endocrine system in the body.”
That said, even if we know that a pesticide causes severe health and environmental impacts — including cancer and genetic damage — it may still be allowed for use. The EPA may determine that a cancer-causing chemical may be used despite its public health hazard, if its “economic, social or environmental” benefits are deemed greater than its risk. According to the EPA, more than 70 active ingredients known to cause cancer in animal tests are allowed for use. Although industry tests for a wide range of environmental and health impacts, the vast majority of pesticides currently on the market have not been fully tested. “For decades, various toxic pesticides were claimed to be ‘safe’ — until they weren’t, and either banned or phased out because they posed risks to people,” said EWG’s Lunder. “While regulators and scientists debate these and other controversies about pesticide safety, EWG will continue drawing attention to the fruits and vegetables with the highest pesticide loads.” Pesticides & Kids It is widely and reputably documented that children are particularly susceptible to the hazards associated with pesticide use. According to the Toxics Action Center, children have more skin surface for their size than adults, absorb proportionally greater amounts of many substances through their lungs and intestinal tracts, and take in more air, food and water per pound than adults. Also, children have not developed their immune systems, nervous systems, or detoxifying mechanisms completely, leaving them less capable of fighting the introduction of toxic pesticides into their systems. The combination of likely increased exposure to pesticides, and lack of bodily development to combat the toxic effects of pesticides, means that children are suffering disproportionately from their impacts.
In light of this, The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a report in 2012 asserting that children have “unique susceptibilities to [pesticide residues’] potential toxicity.” The pediatricians’ organization cited research that linked pesticide exposures in early life and “pediatric cancers, decreased cognitive function, and behavioral problems.” There have also been studies linking pesticide exposure in children to the increasing incidence of ADHD and autism spectrum disorders(ASD).
In May 2010, scientists from the University of Montreal and Harvard University released a study that found that exposure to pesticide residues on vegetables and fruit may double a child’s risk of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a condition that can cause inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity in children.
In February 2009, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) published a study that found that children who live in homes where their parents use pesticides are twice as likely to develop brain cancer versus those that live in residences in which no pesticides are used.
A July 2007 study conducted by researchers at the Public Health Institute, the California Department of Health Services, and the UC Berkeley School of Public Health found a sixfold increase in risk factor for autism spectrum disorders (ASD) for children of women who were exposed to organochlorine pesticides.
Children are at a greater risk for some pesticides for a number of reasons. Children’s internal organs are still developing and maturing and their enzymatic, metabolic, and immune systems may provide less natural protection than those of an adult. There are “critical periods” in human development when exposure to a toxin can permanently alter the way an individual’s biological system operates. Adverse effects of pesticide exposure range from mild symptoms of dizziness and nausea to serious, long-term neurological, developmental and reproductive disorders. — EPA.gov
Government’s role The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sets limits on how much pesticide residue can remain on food and feed products, or commodities. These pesticide residue limits are known as tolerances, or maximum residue limits (MRLs). The EPA’s stated objective is to “assess health risks of pesticides, and determine that there is ‘reasonable certainty of no harm’ posed by pesticide residues allowed to remain on food.” However, there is gray area surrounding this, as the EPA also states that “in certain cases, such as economic loss to farmers, a pesticide not meeting the safety standard may be authorized.” Furthermore, they acknowledge that “pesticides registered in the past may not meet today’s current safety standards.” What Can We Do About It? This information can seem distressing, and it’s easy to become overwhelmed with the quantity of data and reports available. While it’s natural to be concerned, and wise to be curious about where your food comes from, there’s no need for alarm. There are some simple steps you can take:
First, do what you’re doing right now — educate yourself. Read the studies, do your own research, talk to farmers and grocers, talk to your doctor. Do what you can to familiarize yourself with the issues so you can feel more comfortable with the subject and form your own opinions.
Next, if you decide you’d like to minimize your exposure to pesticides, you can start making some choices about your produce. When buying produce in your local grocery store, you can use the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists as a guide. For the “dirtiest” produce, you might opt for organic, and for the “cleanest” produce, you can stick with conventional (non-organic) options. To find organic produce, look for the USDA “Certified Organic” seal. (And don’t be misled by other terms like “natural” or “healthy,” as these are not regulated terms, and thus are nothing more than marketing tools.)
You can also source your produce from local organic farms and farmers’ markets. Or even better, you can take it a step further and grow your own produce! A backyard veggie garden (with no pesticides, of course) ensures that your produce is as clean as can be. And naturally your fruits and veggies will be tastier and more nutritious, since you’ll be eating them at the peak of ripeness.
And when in doubt, remember this: