By Julie Christensen
The Environmental Working Group is a non-profit organization that conducts research on the effects of pesticides in our foods. Every year, this organization issues a list of the top twelve fruits and vegetables that are most heavily contaminated with pesticides. The organization bases its findings on data obtained from the Department of Agriculture Testing Pesticide Program and the Food and Drug Administration.
The organization uses the following criteria to assess individual fruits and vegetables:
- Total number of pesticides found on the product
- Number of samples tested that had pesticide residues
- Number of samples tested that had residues from more than one pesticide
- Average number of pesticides found on samples
- Maximum number of pesticides found on samples
The list doesn’t change much from year to year and typically includes those crops that tend to suffer the most pest problems or those that grow closest to the ground. Thick-skinned fruits, such as citrus, usually have fewer pesticide residues than thin-skinned fruit such as peaches and strawberries.
Below is the 2013 Dirty Dozen list from the EWG:
- Sweet bell peppers
- Imported nectarines
- Cherry tomatoes
- Hot peppers
Additionally, although kale and summer squash/zucchini didn’t qualify for the Dirty Dozen list based on the current criteria, they contained pesticide residues from some of the most toxic chemicals.
Why Avoid Pesticides?
Although the benefits of eating fresh fruits and vegetables usually outweigh the potential risks of pesticide exposures, there are some very good reasons for avoiding pesticide residues whenever possible. Pesticides are designed to kill. Although they might not affect our bodies in exactly the same way they do insects, we can assume that they’re not good for us. Exposure to pesticides has been shown in numerous studies to contribute to the following health risks:
- Neurological problems, including decreased intelligence and increased risk of attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder. A May 2010 study from Harvard University found that American children exposed to organophosphates have an increased risk of developing ADHD.
- Certain types of cancer. Pesticides can cause or contribute to the development of many types of cancer including bone, breast, liver, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, ovarian, testicular, prostate and brain cancers. The National Cancer Institute found that American farmers, who are in most respects healthier than most people, have higher rates of cancer than the general population.
- Hormone interruption. Several pesticides, including carbaryl, DDT, lindane and parathion are known endocrine disrupters. Infertility, developmental delays and behavioral disorders have been linked to hormone interruption.
- Acute exposure to pesticides can cause lung, skin and eye irritation.
Learn how to do it
If the unsavory topic of pesticide residues has you worried about your family’s food supply, read on to learn a few ideas to avoid pesticides without breaking the bank. First, grow as much of your own food as possible. Even a tiny yard can produce a lot of produce. The Dervaes family grows over 6,000 pounds of produce every summer on 1/10 of an acre in downtown Los Angeles. Use intensive growing practices, such as raised beds and vertical gardening to boost your yields. By growing your own food, you know exactly what is – and isn’t – on the crops.
Buy food in season and buy locally whenever possible. When you buy food in season, you can often find organic produce competitively priced. Shop at farmer’s markets, and you can ask the farmer directly about his growing methods. Warehouse stores often carry organic produce at a fraction of the price you’d pay elsewhere.
Prioritize your purchases. If, for example, your kids eat a lot of ketchup or applesauce, it might be worth spending a little more on organic versions of these products, simply because the potential pesticide exposure increases with consumption.
Another thing to consider is the issue of GMOs (genetically modified organisms). The Dirty Dozen list doesn’t include information on GMOs and suppliers aren’t currently required to label GMO foods. Most of the foods in the fresh produce department are free of GMOs. You’re more likely to encounter them in processed products, such as corn chips, tortillas, and snack foods. Corn for meal, soy and canola are the three commodities most likely to include GMOs, and these commodities are in almost every processed food.
To learn more about organic foods and the dirty dozen list, visit the following links:
The List of 48 Contaminated Fruits and Vegetables from the Environmental Working Group
Myths About Pesticides from Pesticide Action Network
CNN covers the dirty dozen on YouTube.
Julie Christensen learned about gardening on her grandfather’s farm and mother’s vegetable garden in southern Idaho. Today, she lives and gardens on the high plains of Colorado. When she’s not digging in the dirt, Julie writes about food, education, parenting and gardening.