Posted on June 22, 2011 - by Jenny Holm
Of all the reasons to buy organic produce, many people cite “avoiding pesticides” as their top motivator: 98% of conventional apples and 96% of conventional celery contain pesticide residues. But not all conventional produce is ridden with chemicals. Residues were found on less than 10% of conventional onions, sweet corn, and asparagus.
To help consumers make informed choices about what produce to buy organic and what’s safe to purchase conventional, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has just released the seventh edition of its “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen,” which compile the most and least contaminated conventional fruits and vegetables into accessible lists based on data from the USDA’s Pesticide Testing Program.
Apples topped this year’s Dirty Dozen, with 98% of samples containing residues and 56 different pesticides detected. Mushrooms made it into the Clean 15 for the first time. See the lists below or check out the full study to learn how the in-between produce stacked up.
Pesticides are designed to kill living organisms, so it’s no surprise that they negatively impact human health. Over time, exposure to the pesticides used on food products can cause birth defects, nerve damage, hormone disruption, and cancer. Babies and children face the greatest risks, because their organs are still developing and they eat and drink more than adults do in relation to their body weight. A 2009 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found pesticides in blood and urine samples of 96% of Americans age 6 and older.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is charged with regulating the safety of pesticides used in the US and determining limits (“tolerances”) on how much of each chemical may be left on food sold to consumers. But current standards don’t do enough to protect our health. Residue monitoring only covers those pesticides that are registered for use in the US, so tests may not even detect some highly toxic chemicals. (A 2009 study showed that FDA inspections did not test for 71% of the pesticides used on squash and 61% used on chayote grown in Costa Rica for the US market.) Federal scientists recently found 33 unapproved pesticides on nearly half of cilantro samples, indicating that sporadic testing is not sufficient to protect consumers. Moreover, established “safe” limits do not effectively account for combinations of the many pesticides present on foods and various sources of exposure to chemicals in our air, water, personal care products, and household cleaning supplies that collectively impact our health.
What Can I Do?
Washing and peeling your produce can help reduce pesticide exposure, but do not eliminate residue. Many chemicals are absorbed systemically, so no amount of washing will remove them. Inspectors prepare each fruit or vegetable as it would normally be eaten before testing (e.g. peeling bananas, washing apples and peaches), so detected residues reflect what actually goes into your body when you eat each food.
The health benefits of a diet full of fruits and vegetables—conventional or organic—far outweigh the health risks presented by pesticide residues on produce. But you can substantially reduce your exposure to these toxic substances by choosing organic versions of the 12 fruits and vegetables most likely to be contaminated by pesticides. If you can’t go all organic, the Clean 15 helps you choose the safest conventional produce.
- Nectarines (imported)
- Grapes (imported)
- Sweet bell peppers
- Blueberries (domestic)
- Kale/collard greens
- Sweet corn
- Sweet peas
- Cantaloupe (domestic)
- Sweet potatoes
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