As many Americans continue to increase their consumption of fruits and vegetables in their diet in an effort to increase their health, well being, lifespan and decrease their risk to diabetes, heart disease and other chronic conditions they may in fact be increasing their risk to several types of cancer because of the "healthy foods" they are buying at the market.
There has been much publicity about the importance of increasing the amount of fruit and vegetables in the diet. Many health organizations, such as the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association and the American Diabetes association all recommend eating lots of vegetables and fruits. However, amid this healthy push towards increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables there is a growing concern about the potential health effects of low level pesticide exposure from chemical residues left on produce that is readily available to US consumers.
The Use of Pesticides on Fruit and Vegetables
Over the last 60 years farmers and growers have changed the way they produce food in order to meet the expectations of consumers, supermarkets and governments. In doing so they have made many changes to the way they farm. This often includes the use of pesticides:
- To protect crops from insect pests, weeds and fungal diseases while they are growing. Much of the world’s food production is lost to attack from pest and diseases, in the field, at harvest and in storage. Crop protection decreases spoilage, which lowers price and increases availability. Crop protection products have also enabled food production to keep pace with the world population.
- To prevent rats, mice, flies and other insects from contaminating foods while they are being transported and stored
- To safeguard human health, by stopping food crops being contaminated by fungi.
- Meet consumers’ expectations. Consumers expect attractive, high quality, nutritious, safe, reasonably priced food, pest free, toxin free with minimum waste and microbial contamination. If a significant amount of produce was to be lost to pest damage, the price per unit of marketable produce would rise substantially.
To protect your health, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets
standards on the amount of pesticides that may remain on food, if
pesticides are applied. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for
protecting the public health by assuring the safety, efficacy, and
security of our nation’s food supply, including food imported to the
FDA Confirms Pesticide Contamination Present
FDA tests on imported foods reveal that contamination by illegal
pesticides account for only five percent of imports (other independent
testing suggest contamination rates slightly higher); however,
contamination rates are higher for imported carrots, pineapples, rice,
peas and pears (Allen, May 28, 1991).
It may be important to note however, is the
FDA is understaffed and only tests one or two percent of Imports while
the rest wind up in US grocery stores!!!
Pesticide Use Becoming a Growing Health Concern
While pesticides have important uses, studies show that some pesticides cause health problems at certain levels of exposure. Improper pesticide use has been found to cause various forms of cancer, birth defects, miscarriages, sterility, and deaths. The EPA ranks pesticide residues as one of the leading health problems in the US.
A significant amount of produce in US groceries is imported. Of this produce a significant portion comes from countries using large amounts of pesticides and herbicides during the farming practices.
How Pesticide use Threatens Consumers
Although pesticides can be very beneficial in that they are used to kill unwanted pests, weeds and molds, they can also harm people, wildlife and our environment. There are still pesticides and herbicides used that do not actively decay and accumulate in our soils, and also bio accumulate in our bodies. Bio accumulation is the process by which the concentrations of some toxic chemicals gradually increase in living tissue, such as in plants, fish, or people as they breathe contaminated air, drink contaminated water, or eat contaminated food. This can cause irreversible and potentially fatal consequences.
A study conducted by the National Academy of Scientists estimates that
in the next 70 years, one million additional cases of cancer in the US
will be caused by pest residues
Pesticide toxicity threatens US consumer’s additional ways as well, such as what is referred to as the "circle of poison" effect. The "circle of poison" effect refers to when unregistered or banned pesticides are exported to other countries such as Mexico and sprayed on crops whose produce is then exported back to the US. A significant amount of produce in US groceries is imported. Of this produce a significant portion comes from countries using large amounts of pesticides and herbicides during the farming practices.
- Mexico has increased its reliance on pesticide imports and is currently the second largest pesticide importer in Latin America.
- New Zealand pesticide use has also continued to increase with New Zealand continuing to rely heavily on pesticide use in its farming practices (source: Trends in Pesticide Use in New Zealand: 2004).
- Additionally many European countries also export banned pesticides to many nations that export produce to the US and find their way to US grocery stores and subsequently into US homes for consumption.
Homegrown fruits and vegetables may not be much better. A report card for pesticide regulation issued by Consumers Union in 2001 gave the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency a grade of D for reducing dietary risks associated with pesticide residues on foods grown in the U.S., citing "slow progress, and much of the task incomplete."
Strategies to Reduce Pesticide Exposure
Here are some strategies you can employ to reduce you and your family’s potential exposure to toxic pesticide contamination from food sources.
Buy organic. Washing and peeling may help remove residues of certain pesticides. But some pesticides are systemic, which means that they are found within the fruit or vegetable. This means that washing and peeling will not remove all of that particular pesticide. Washing fruit and vegetables before consumption is always a sensible precaution to ensure that they are clean.
A recent study at the University of Washington found that children who ate mostly organically grown fruits and vegetables had only one-sixth the amount of pesticide by-products in their urine as compared to children who ate conventionally grown foods. If cost is an issue, as a minimum, consider buying organic varieties of just the foods that have been shown to be more likely to have high levels of chemical residues, such as peaches, apples, pears, winter squash, green beans, grapes, strawberries, raspberries, spinach, and potatoes.
Avoid imported produce from areas known to have high levels of chemical residue. As a minimum, consider especially avoiding tomatoes, strawberries, and spinach from Mexico), peaches, pears, and grapes from Chile, fruits and vegetables especially apples from New Zealand.
Always wash (and peel, where possible) fruits and vegetables. Soaking is fine to loosen dirt and debris, but studies have shown that running water is the most effective means of physically removing pesticide residues as well as dirt and bacteria. Note: washing with commercial produce washes were shown in one study to be only slightly more effective than plain running water in removing residues and may not be worth the extra money
Peel produce that is likely to have high levels of pesticide residue. The pesticide DDT, banned in the U.S. in 1973, has been found in the skins of root vegetables grown more than 20 years later
Throw out the outer leaves of leafy vegetables. The outer leaves receive the most pesticide concentrations. Removing these leaves can reduce potential exposures.
Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables. If your produce isn’t organically grown, eating a mix of foods from a variety of sources can minimize your risk of ingesting too much of any one pesticide.
Despite the potential health risks of pesticide residues, current science indicates the health advantages of eating plenty of fruits and vegetables are greater. So my advice is to load up on fruits and vegetables to protect your health, while also taking some of the simple steps mentioned above to minimize your exposures to unwanted contaminants.