Posted on Nov 13, 2019, 12 p.m.
You are most likely consuming measurable amounts of pesticide residue with every bite you take of produce that has been conventionally grown; the latest US FDA report has revealed that pesticide residues are widespread on common popular produce including, grapes, strawberries, and apples.
The US FDA examines produce for contamination with such chemicals via their pesticide residue monitoring program. Alarmingly overall 84% of domestic fruits, 53% of vegetables, 42% of grains, and 73% of other foods such as seeds, nuts, beverages, and candy contained pesticide residues, while imported fruits only fared marginally better with 52.3% of sampled produced being found to be tainted with pesticides.
6,069 food for human consumption samples were included in the FDA report which included 1,700 domestic and 4,270 imported samples from 48 states, Puerto Rico, and 100 countries; according to the report: "96.2% of domestic and 89.6% of import human foods were compliant with federal standards," meaning that they may have had found pesticide residue but it was not in violation of the controversial pesticide tolerance levels set by the US EPA.
3.8% of domestic products and 10.4% of imported goods were in violation of the pesticide tolerance levels, high concentrations of other produce were found to contain varying levels of pesticide residues including 88% of apples and apple juice, 92.6% of nectarines and nectarine juice, 82% of spinach, 86.6% of cucumbers, 80% of refined oils, 87% of kale, 84% of strawberries, 87% of grapes/raisins and grape juice, and 91% of lemons and lemon juice.
The Environmental Working Group also releases their report on the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen every year of produce that has the most heavily and least contaminated pesticides content, which is based on annual reports from the USDA’s Pesticide Data Program and has revealed that 99% of sample produce contained pesticide residues that the EPA controversially labels as being compliant, but the “EWG believes that these federal standards are insufficient.”
221 different pesticide compounds were revealed to be in the sampled produce including DDT which is a toxic pesticide that was banned in 1972 yet found in 34 samples; and the organophosphate chlorpyrifos was detected in 265 samples which is known to disrupt brain development and cause brain damage, neurological abnormalities, reduce IQ, cause aggressiveness in children, and has a half life on food of several weeks.
Neonicotinoids were also found to be widespread in the samples which are known to impair the immune system of bees to make them more vulnerable to infection and death when exposed. Glyphosate and 2,4-D residue were also found which have been classed as a probable carcinogen by the IARC in 2015, and 2,4-D is one of the active ingredients in Agent Orange which was used to defoliate battlefields in Vietnams with horrendous consequences to health for the exposed.
The majority of conventionally grown produce consumed by Americans contains pesticide residue, "The FDA found 96.2% of domestic and 89.6% of import human foods were compliant with federal standards.” “98.8% of domestic and 94.4% of imported animal foods were compliant with federal standards." Susan Mayne, Ph.D., director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, further noted:"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."
All good then right? Wrong. According to most experts the tolerance levels set by the EPA are too high, and they have been increased in recent years, such as in the midst of mounting concerns over the safety of glyphosate the EPA in a head shaking move went ahead and raised the allowable limits for it in both food and feed crops.
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." EWG senior analyst Sonya Lunder added:
"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 unfortunately will experience greater exposure to these chemicals than adults due to weight and their immature and porous blood brain barrier allowing greater chemical exposures to reach their still developing brains. The EPA is supposed to apply a 10 fold margin of safety in setting tolerance levels in order to protect the most vulnerable, but according to the US 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."
Harvard scientists note in JAMA Internal Medicine that "more than 90% of the population have detectable levels of pesticides in their urine and blood," health effects of consuming pesticide residues are unknown; even if the residue is low, the cumulative effects must be considered, as pesticide residues are so widespread.
Friends of the Earth found that 100% of oat cereal samples tested were positive for glyphosate residues, as well as neonicotinoids and organophosphates were commonly found in popular foods such as store brand cereal, beans and produce from the top 4 American retailers: Costco, Kroger, Albertsons/Safeway, and Walmart.
"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,” says former EPA senior scientist Tracey Woodruff to Environmental Health News.
JAMA Internal Medicine published a study finding greater intake of produce with high pesticide residues was associated with a lower probability of pregnancy among women undergoing fertility treatment; consuming 2+ servings of these daily was linked to 18% lower probability of pregnancy and 26% lower probability of live birth.
Men are not safe either, consuming such produce has been linked to lower semen quality, according to a study published in Human Reproduction: "On average, men in the 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."
A Harvard study involving 4,466 Americans 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."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 is your personal choice of whether to go organic or not, based on research it is worth considering. It is possible to remove some of these harmful pesticide residues by washing the produce in a solution of baking soda, or by removing the peel, but these chemicals most often penetrate beyond the peel; also the peels are sources of healthy compounds. It may be best to choose organic or biodynamic produce as much as possible, and it may also help to take a look at the EWG’s list of Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 of the worst and least contaminated items.
EWG’s 2019 Dirty Dozen: Suggested to only purchase if organic
EWG’s 2019 Clean 15: ok if organic or conventional
- Sweet corn
- Sweet peas (frozen)
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This article is not intended to provide medical diagnosis, advice, treatment, or endorsement.