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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Pesticides on Produce

Air Date: Week of

Tomatoes of all colors from Amy Goldman’s garden (Photo: Joanna Rifkin)

An apple a day may keep the doctor away but it often comes spiked with a cocktail of chemical pesticides. The Environmental Working Group has released its annual dirty dozen list of the fruits and vegetables with the most and least detectable pesticide residues. Living on Earth’s Bobby Bascomb reports.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood. Despite the rapid growth of organic food production, pesticides are widely used on America's farms. And as pests become resistant, more pesticides are applied, which can mean more of these risky chemicals show up in the foods we buy. To help guide consumers, the Environmental Working Group is out with the latest version of its annual list of fruits and vegetables with the least and most pesticide residues. Living on Earth’s Bobby Bascomb has more.


BASCOMB: 6:00pm on a Tuesday, grocery store rush hour at at my neighborhood market in Cambridge, Massachusetts. People pop in after work to get food for dinner. In the produce de-partment - amid bins of broccoli, piles of oranges, and stacks of bananas I asked shoppers to take a guess…. which item of produce has the most pesticide residue?

WOMAN: I think berries would be at the top of the list. They have such thin skins and they ab-sorb things like that really easily.

MAN: I would expect the softer greens. I would expect perhaps spinach. The softer the leaf the more little pests want to eat it.

WOMAN: I would guess one of the more colorful vegetables. I would guess like bell peppers or something like that because I feel like whenever I read stuff it’s the stuff with the most color is the stuff that’s being artificially messed with.

MAN: I’d guess root vegetables. Stuff like potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams. Stuff like that.

MAN: I think I saw something once that said apples are really high as far as pesticides but that’s the only one I remember.

BASCOMB: He’s right. All of those foods are on the dirty dozen list. However, though an apple a day may keep the doctor away it also comes spiked with a cocktail of 5 different types of chemical pesticides. Apples routinely top the Environmental Working Group’s dirty dozen list but this year the researchers are particularly concerned about a chemical called diphenylamine, or DPA. Roughly 80% of American apples are sprayed with DPA after they’ve been picked to protect the skin of the fruit during shipping. Sonya Lunder is a senior analyst with the Environ-mental Working Group.

LUNDER: Europe actually took action in 2012 to ban this pesticide treatment because they couldn’t guarantee consumers in Europe that this DPA treatment didn’t breakdown to form can-cer-causing impurities or breakdown products when the apples were stored.

BASCOMB: Number two on the dirty dozen list …. strawberries.

LUNDER: Strawberries grow on the ground. They’re very susceptible to pests and spoilage. They’re also a high value crop. So there’s a very aggressive regiment of treating strawberries in-cluding fumigating the soil to kill all living creatures in the soil before they plant the little straw-berry starts.

BASCOMB: And rounding out the top three produce items with the most pesticides, grapes. Leafy greens aren’t off the hook though. Kale and collard greens are frequently contaminated with insecticides known to be toxic to the human nervous system but potatoes have the most pes-ticides by weight. Lunder says that doesn’t mean people should stop eating fruits and vegetables. Instead she advises them to choose organic when possible.

LUNDER: If you have limited money to buy organic foods, focus on those foods that are on the dirty dozen list and when your organic dollars are tight consider the clean 15 as a group of foods that have very few pesticide residues on them.

BASCOMB: Avocados have the least pesticides of any food tested, followed by sweet corn, and pineapple. Researchers test the part of the produce people eat and generally fruits and vegetables with a thick non-edible outer skin have fewer detectible residues.

Most of the shoppers in my grocery store were surprised when I told them about the high con-centration of pesticides on apples and had mixed feelings about buying organic instead.

WOMAN: I’ll be thinking about it but I’ll still probably buy the same food to be honest. I’m poor, so organic is expensive!

MAN: We do eat organic. Pesticides and other reasons - it tastes better, it’s better for you.

MAN: I’m definitely concerned about pesticides and try to avoid non-organic produce when I can. I actually get a farm share most of the year.

WOMAN: I’m kind of the type that’s like it’s worrisome but there’s not much I can do about it.

MAN: I don’t know what to make of it. I mean I wash everything pretty thoroughly anyway so…

BASCOMB: (on tape) This report, actually the way they did it, they washed everything very thoroughly and then they tested it so this is the pesticides that you can’t wash off.

MAN: Well, that’s upsetting….

BASCOMB: The pesticides USDA and FDA researchers found in the study can’t be removed by washing the food. The shoppers I talked to were left wondering if eating pesticides on produce is safe. Sonay Lunder from the Environmental Working Group says there’s no ethical way scien-tists can test the safety of people consuming pesticides. But several studies have examined the health outcomes of children who live in farming communities and were exposed to pesticides.

LUNDER: These long term studies of American kids found that kids with the higher levels of exposure to these pesticides had lower IQs and had signs that their brain and nervous system de-velopment had been altered or disrupted from the pesticides. And in the IQ studies - it’s like a 6 point IQ drop which is equivalent to lead poisoning.

BASCOMB: Lunder says the children in the farm study were likely exposed to more pesticides than the residue in the food we eat. However, young children and pregnant women are still most at risk for problems associated with pesticides so she advises people buying for those groups to be extra choosy in the produce department of the grocery store.

For Living on Earth I’m Bobby Bascomb in Cambridge, Massachusetts.



EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce


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