You don't want to know what's in the next bite of that juicy peach you're devouring on that hot, summer day. If someone told you that it contained Iprodione, Azinphos methyl, and Phosmet, you might respond with a puzzled look before asking for an explanation. As few of us know, the three chemicals are designed to make sure no other creatures eat that peach before you do. In fact, they are the most common of 45 different pesticides discovered in laboratory tests on peaches. Those tests revealed that pesticides were present in 94% of peaches examined.
The three pesticides are problematic for both humans and animals. Iprodione is an animal carcinogen; Azinphos methyl interferes with hormones; Phosmet is a triple threat by being an animal carcinogen, damaging the human reproductive system, and interfering with hormones.
Peaches seem to win the pesticide prize, but 11 other fruits and vegetables are close behind to make up the dirty dozen cited by the Environmental Working Group. According to the EVG Pesticides in Produce issued in 2003, peaches, apples, bell peppers, celery, cherries, imported grapes, nectarines, pears, potatoes, red raspberries, spinach, and strawberries are the leading pesticide-laden produce items.
In the Food News Report Card the Environmental Working Group ranked 46 common fruits and vegetables for pesticide contamination. Their ranking chart was based on an analysis of over 100,000 tests for pesticides on those foods, conducted from 1992 to 2001 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration.
The EWG produced a composite score based on six measures:
Being at the bottom of the rating scale is not necessarily bad, especially when the scores rank the amount of pesticide contamination. The twelve lowest pesticide purveyors are asparagus, avocados, bananas, broccoli, cauliflower, sweet corn, kiwis, mangos, onions, papayas, pineapples, and sweet peas. Being on this list did not mean the fruits or vegetables were pesticide free, just that they were least likely to have pesticide residues on them.
Eight of the dirty dozen were fruits. Over 90% of nectarines, peaches, and pears tested positive for pesticides, while nectarines, peaches, and cherries were likely to have multiple pesticides on a single sample (over 75%). Peaches and raspberries had the most pesticides on a single sample (9) with strawberries and apples close behind with 8.
Leading the dishonor roll of vegetables were celery, spinach, bell peppers, and potatoes. Celery was most likely to have multiple pesticides and had the highest percentage of samples (94%) test positive for pesticides. It almost edged out spinach for most pesticides in one sample. Spinach counted 10 pesticides with celery registering 9. Bell peppers surpassed both with 39 pesticides, the most overall.
Although 79% of potatoes were found to have pesticides and its total of 29 pesticides ranked it below celery and spinach, one of those pesticides was DDT, which was banned in the United States after December 31, 1972. Samples of spinach also contained DDT.
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, "In soil, DDT lasts for a very long time because it binds strongly to soil particles. Once attached, DDT and its byproducts can persist for as long as 15 years. Moreover, when bound to soil particles, DDT can begin to bioaccumulate, building up in plants and in the fatty tissue of the fish, birds, and animals that eat the plants. Despite a longstanding ban in this country, the United States exported more than 96 tons of DDT in 1991."
The NRDC reported the presence of DDT in breast milk, although there has been a decline in countries that have banned or restricted this chemical. DDT was banned because it caused significant damage to wildlife around the world and was a suspected link to breast and liver cancer. It was also believed to hinder embryo development and reproduction. More information from the NRDC can be found at http://www.nrdc.org/
In looking at the test results of the dirty dozen of fruits, one notices that there are other chemical pesticides that have more dangers associated with them. Benomyl and Carbaryl, for example, have five pronounced effects. They are animal carcinogens and cause birth defects in animals. In humans they damage the reproductive system, interfere with hormones, and damage the brain and nervous system. Benomyl and Carbaryl are also found in spinach. Benomyl is also present in peaches and strawberries, while Carbaryl is evident in peaches, strawberries, raspberries, nectarines, imported grapes, cherries, bell peppers, and apples.
Another pesticide heavy hitter is Captan, a carcinogen that causes birth defects in animals. In humans it damages the reproductive system, the brain and nervous system, and the immune system. Captan has found a home in peaches, strawberries, raspberries, pears, imported grapes, and apples.
Since the National Cancer Institute and Produce for Better Health Foundation recommend eating 5 to 9 servings of fruits and vegetables and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend 5 servings, wouldn't this mean that people would be consuming more pesticides? Not necessarily, if people cut back on eating the items on the dirty dozen list. But that eliminates many vegetables that contribute nutrients beneficial to the human diet.
The best way to scale back pesticide consumption is to go organic. In its annual survey released in 2004, http://www.organicconsumers.org/organic/popularity102204.cfm revealed that 68% of Americans have tried organic fruits and beverages compared to 54% in the two previous years. The survey also reported that 27% indicated that they consumed more organic foods and beverages than they did the year before.
The three principal reasons people gave for purchasing organic were avoidance of pesticides (70.3%), freshness, (68.3%), and health and nutrition (67.1%). Avoiding genetically modified foods was the reason given by 55% of the respondents. "Better for my health" was the answer of 52.8% while "better for the environment" was the statement of 52.4%.
The chief obstacle to more purchases of organic items is price with 74.6% of those polled giving that as a reason for not buying more. As a positive sign more Americans (40%) now recognize the organic logo and labeling on their purchases, up 19% from 2003.
In response to those who suggest thorough washing of fruits and vegetables to remove pesticides, the Environmental Working Group reminds them that in the tests conducted by the USDA the produce was washed before being analyzed.
"While washing fresh produce may help reduce pesticide residues, it clearly does not eliminate them," says EVG. "Nonetheless, produce should be washed before it is eaten because washing does reduce levels of some pesticides. However, other pesticides are taken up internally in the plant, are in the fruit, and cannot be washed off. Others are formulated to bind to the surface of the crop and do not easily wash off. Peeling reduces exposures, but valuable nutrients often go down the drain with the peel."
In VIP visits to farmers' markets we have noted an increase in the number of farmers selling organic produce during the last seven years. In many cases the fruits and vegetable prices are the same or even less than those in supermarkets. As more and more people purchase and demand organic the prices will come down.
VIP commends the Environmental Working Group for their efforts to make the public aware of pesticides in our food. We agree with their goal of encouraging people to eat a varied diet, wash their fruits and vegetables, and select organic whenever possible.
Printed below is information adapted from Environmental Working Group's Test Results: Complete Data Set.
Pesticides in Your Food