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A SHOPPER'S GUIDE TO
PESTICIDES IN PRODUCE

Fruits and vegetables are essential to a nutritious and healthy diet. At the same time, the health benefits of many of these fruits and vegetables are compromised by consistent contamination with combinations of pesticides classified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as probable human carcinogens, toxicity category one (most toxic) nervous system poisons, and endocrine (hormone) system disrupters.

A Environmental Working Group study (from data collected by the EPA and U.S. Agriculture Department), estimated that more than 1 million American children under five years old eat foods containing an unsafe dose of the insecticide every day.

Researchers with the group urged the EPA to immediately ban all organophosphates on fruits and vegetables intended for commercial baby food.

The chemicals tend to be most concentrated in thin-skinned fruits and vegetables, such as grapes, apples and peaches, the study said. Oranges, melons and bananas have smaller residues.

"The state of our knowledge with regard to pesticides is similar to where we were in the 1940s with regard to lead poisoning," Needleman said, adding that some pesticides were as dangerous to growing children as nerve gas.

As a precaution, parents should buy organic baby foods and organically-raised fruits and vegetables, said Richard Wiles, a researcher who helped prepare the study. "A diet should be varied in fruits and vegetables but these chemicals are everywhere and the EPA should ban them," he said.

What is a parent to do?

One answer is to buy certified organic produce, but this is simply not a viable option for the vast majority of families because only two percent of the nation's food is organically grown (USDA 1995). Another approach is to selectively purchase conventional produce that has consistently lower level of fewer pesticides, and that has lower levels of highly toxic pesticides.

To help consumers minimize their exposure to pesticides in produce, and maximize the nutritional benefits of the fruits and vegetables they eat, we analyzed the results of 15,000 samples of food tested for pesticides by Food and Drug Administration during 1992 and 1993. We then ranked 42 fruits and vegetables according to seven different measures of pesticide contamination, such as the percent of the crop with detectable residues, and the potency of the average amount of cancer causing pesticides found each year on that crop.

We found:

The Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce does not tell people what to eat. Instead the Guide provides easy to understand ranking of fruits and vegetables from those with the highest and most toxic contamination, to those with the fewest and least toxic levels of contamination. We then provide a simple selection of nutritious alternative fruits and vegetables with consistently lower pesticide risks.

For example, the Guide does not recommend that people never eat strawberries. The Guide will tell consumers, however, that strawberries had the highest combined score for pesticide contamination and toxicity of all fruits and vegetables examined, and that there are many equally or more nutritious alternatives to strawberries, with far fewer pesticides on them.

Similarly the Guide does not tell people to eat avocados. It does quite clearly reveal, however, that avocados have the lowest levels of the fewest number of pesticides of all 42 crops examined.

The Shopper's Guide is the fifth in a series of Environmental Working Group reports that analyzes pesticides in food and the risks they present to infants and children. In the past we have examined the particular susceptibilities of infants and children to pesticides, the presence of pesticides after washing and peeling produce, the underreporting of illegal pesticides by the FDA, and the presence of pesticides in baby food.

In previous reports the Environmental Working Group has recommended the phase-out of highly hazardous pesticides, including those classified by the EPA as probable human carcinogens; a strict health standard to protect infants and children from exposure to multiple pesticides in food, water, and the environment; and real incentives for the overall reduction of pesticide use in agriculture. We restate our support for these recommendations here.

In the current political climate, however, it seems just as likely that the Congress will weaken current pesticide standards as strengthen them. Our recommendation in this context is for consumers to vote with their wallets, and purchase produce with consistently lower and consistently less toxic pesticides on them.

This action will send two important signals:

Until tough health-based standards for pesticides are enacted by the Congress and enforced by the EPA, and until high hazard compounds like probable human carcinogens are banned, consumers are well advised to take matters in their own hands, BUY ORGANIC!

Written by: Environmental Working Group

Environmental Working Group, a project of the Tides Center, is a nonprofit research organization with offices in Washington, DC and San Francisco.


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