Pesticides found in 84 percent of fruit
Story at-a-glance -
- The U.S. FDA, which evaluates produce for chemicals via their pesticide residue monitoring program, revealed that pesticide residues are widespread in popular produce, including strawberries, apples and grapes
- Overall, 84% of domestic fruits — along with 53% of vegetables, 42% of grains and 73% of “other” foods, such as nuts, seeds, candy, beverages and others — contained pesticide residues
- Imported fruits fared slightly better, with 52.3% of samples tainted with pesticide residues
- The FDA report revealed 221 different pesticide compounds in produce, including DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane), a toxic pesticide banned in 1972
- A group of Harvard scientists noted that more than 90% of Americans have detectable levels of pesticides in their urine and blood, and the health effects of consuming pesticide residues are unknown
When you eat conventionally grown fruit, you're probably consuming measurable amounts of pesticide residues in every bite.
The U.S. FDA, which evaluates produce for such chemicals via their pesticide residue monitoring program, continues to assert that pesticide residues in your food aren't cause for alarm, but no one knows what health consequences could result from this long-term, cumulative exposure to minute quantities of chemical contaminants.
The latest report, published in September 2019 and using fiscal year 2017 data,1 revealed that pesticide residues are widespread in popular produce, including strawberries, apples and grapes.
Overall, 84% of domestic fruits — along with 53% of vegetables, 42% of grains and 73% of "other" foods, such as nuts, seeds, candy, beverages and others — contained pesticide residues.2 Imported fruits fared slightly better, with 52.3% of samples tainted with pesticide residues
Popular Fruits Contaminated With Pesticide Residues
The FDA report analyzed 6,069 human food samples, including 1,799 domestic and 4,270 imported samples from 48 states, Puerto Rico and 100 countries. While the FDA reported that "96.2% of domestic and 89.6% of import human foods were compliant with federal standards," this only means that they were not in violation of controversial pesticide tolerance levels set by the U.S. EPA.3
Overall, 3.8% of domestic products and 10.4% of imported goods were "violative," or in violation of pesticide tolerance levels, while high concentrations of other produce were found to contain pesticide residues of varying levels, including:4
88% of apples and apple juice
87% of grapes, grape juice and raisins
91% of lemons and lemon juice
92.6% of nectarines and nectarine juice
84% of strawberries
87% of kale
82% of spinach
86.6% of cucumbers
80% of refined oils
Every year, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) also releases their "Dirty Dozen" list for produce, which are among the most heavily contaminated with pesticides.
Their data is based on annual reports from the USDA's Pesticide Data Program and revealed that more than 99% of produce samples contained pesticide residues that the EPA labels as compliant, but "EWG believes the federal standards are insufficient."5
Topping EWG's list of the most contaminated produce were strawberries, followed by spinach, kale, nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries and pears.
What Types of Pesticide Are in Your Food?
The FDA report revealed 221 different pesticide compounds in produce, including DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane), a toxic pesticide banned in 1972, in 34 of the samples.6 The organophosphate chlorpyrifos was also detected in 265 samples.
The chemical, known to disrupt brain development and cause brain damage, neurological abnormalities, reduced IQ and aggressiveness in children, has a half-life on food of several weeks, making nonorganic foods a major source of exposure.7 Neonicotinoids were also widespread in the samples.
These chemicals are known to impair the immune system of bees, making them more vulnerable to infection and death when exposed to viral or other pathogens.8
Glyphosate and of 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) residues were also detected in some of the samples. Concerns over glyphosate's toxicity have been mounting since the International Agency for Research on Cancer's (IARC) 2015 determination that glyphosate is a "probable carcinogen."
Meanwhile, 2,4-D is one of the ingredients in Agent Orange, which was used to defoliate battlefields in the jungles of Vietnam, with horrendous consequences to the health of those exposed. IARC ruled 2,4-D a possible human carcinogen in 2015, and there is concern it may increase the risk of Non-Hodgkin lymphoma and soft-tissue cancer known as sarcoma.
Are Pesticide Tolerance Levels Too Lax?
The fact that the majority of fruit Americans eat contains pesticide residues is considered to be a success story by the FDA, which stated, "The FDA found 96.2% of domestic and 89.6% of import human foods were compliant with federal standards.
In addition, the FDA found 98.8% of domestic and 94.4% of import animal foods were compliant with federal standards."9 Susan Mayne, Ph.D., director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, further noted:10
"The latest set of results demonstrate once again that the majority of the foods we test are well below the federal limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency, meaning that they meet EPA's safety standards. We will continue to do this important monitoring work, taking action when appropriate, to help ensure our food supply remains among the safest in the world."
The problem with this logic is that the tolerance levels set by the EPA are too high, according to some experts, and have even been increased in recent years. In July 2013, for instance, right in the midst of mounting questions about glyphosate's safety, the EPA went ahead and raised the allowable limits of glyphosate in both food and feed crops.11
As Beyond Pesticides noted, "Of course, as tolerances climb, violative levels will be less frequently reported by FDA; and given the chemical industry's influence on the administration and Congress, the greater the amounts of these chemical residues that will show up in the food supply."12 EWG senior analyst Sonya Lunder added:13
"The EPA's tolerance levels are too lenient to protect public health. They are a yardstick to help the agency's personnel determine whether farmers are applying pesticides properly. The levels were set years ago and do not account for newer research showing that toxic chemicals can be harmful at very small doses, particularly when people are exposed to combinations of chemicals.
If pesticide tolerance levels were set to protect the health of children, who are more vulnerable than adults to small doses, more fruits and vegetables would fail EPA standards. The current EPA pesticide tolerances are like having a 500 mph speed limit — if the rules of the road are so loose it's impossible to violate them, no one can feel safe."
Children experience greater exposure to chemicals pound-for-pound than adults, and have an immature and porous blood-brain barrier that allows greater chemical exposures to reach their developing brain.
As such, the EPA is supposed to apply a 10-fold margin of safety in setting tolerance levels for pesticide residues in order to protect the most vulnerable — infants and children.
However, according to U.S. Right to Know, "the agency often makes the determination that it need not comply" with this requirement, and, "The EPA has overridden that requirement in the setting of many pesticide tolerances, saying no such extra margin of safety is needed to protect children."14
Pesticides Found in More Than 90% of Americans
Writing in JAMA Internal Medicine, a group of Harvard scientists noted that "more than 90% of the population have detectable levels of pesticides in their urine and blood," and the health effects of consuming pesticide residues are unknown.15 Even if the residue on a single strawberry or grape is low, the cumulative effects must be considered, as pesticide residues are so widespread.
For instance, in testing done by Friends of the Earth (FOE), 100% of oat cereal samples tested positive for residues of glyphosate.16 Residues of neonicotinoids and organophosphates were also found in commonly eaten foods, including store-brand cereal, beans and produce from the top four food retailers in the U.S.: Walmart, Kroger, Costco and Albertsons/Safeway.
Even former EPA senior scientist Tracey Woodruff told Environmental Health News, "Risk assessment practices at federal agencies have not been updated for modern scientific principles, including accounting for the fact that people are exposed to multiple chemicals and that certain groups, such as genetically susceptible, the very young and old can be at greater risk of exposure."17
Meanwhile, in research published in JAMA Internal Medicine, it was found that greater intake of fruits and vegetables with high pesticide residues was associated with a lower probability of pregnancy among women undergoing infertility treatment.18
Specifically, consuming two or more servings of high-pesticide residue produce daily was linked to an 18% lower probability of pregnancy and a 26% lower probability of live birth compared to those who ate fewer servings. Consuming fruits and vegetables with high pesticide residues has also been linked to lower semen quality in men. According to the study, published in Human Reproduction:19
"On average, men in highest quartile of high pesticide residue fruit and vegetable intake (≥1.5 servings/day) had 49% … lower total sperm count and 32% … lower percentage of morphologically normal sperm than men in the lowest quartile of intake (<0.5 servings/day) …
Low-to-moderate pesticide residue fruit and vegetable intake was associated with a higher percentage of morphologically normal sperm."
Choosing Organic Can Lower Your Pesticide Exposure
One of the best ways to lower your exposure to dangerous pesticides in your food is to choose organic or biodynamic food. A study of 4,466 people in the U.S. found that those who "often or always" ate organic had significantly lower levels of pesticide residues compared to those who ate the least amount of organic produce.20 The Harvard scientists also noted:21
"In the general population, low-level pesticide exposure is widespread, and the primary route of exposure is diet, especially intake of conventionally grown fruits and vegetables … Crossover trials have shown that switching from consuming conventionally grown foods to organic foods decreases urinary concentrations of pesticide metabolites, suggesting reduced exposure to pesticides."
While it's possible to remove some pesticide residues from produce using a solution of baking soda,22 or by removing the peel, chemical residues may penetrate beyond the peel. Further, the peel of produce is often a source of healthy compounds you're better of consuming than throwing away or composting.
Ideally, choose organic or biodynamic as much as possible, but remember that it doesn't have to be all or nothing. If you need to pick and choose which produce to buy organic, consult EWG's "Dirty Dozen" and "Clean 15" lists, which highlight the most and least contaminated produce as follows:23
'Dirty Dozen' 2019 — Choose Organic
'Clean 15' 2019 — OK to Choose Conventional
- Sweet corn
- Sweet peas (frozen)
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