Basics about pesticides

December 15, 2016

We all know the saying – you are what you eat. So what does it mean when a large proportion of our everyday food is contaminated with pesticide? Based on an analysis from U.K. government surveys involving hundreds of tests on 40 food types for 372 different pesticides, turns out that up to 98% of the sampled supermarket fruits were carrying some traces of the chemicals. In turn, those chemicals stay in our bodies.

According to DailyMail, the proportion of supermarket foods with pesticide residues has almost doubled in a decade. However, pesticides are not a modern invention. Even medieval farmers and scientists experimented with chemicals ranging from arsenic to lead on common crops. In modern times, those experiments have evolved into big business. The United States alone has registered over 350,000 pesticide products – which in U.S. is a 12.5 billion dollar industry.


Pesticides have been linked to a number of health problems, including neurologic and endocrine (hormone) system disorders, birth defects, cancer, and other diseases.

Although it is widely known that exposure to pesticides is dangerous to humans, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data show that the average American child between the ages of six and eleven carries unacceptable levels of the organophosphorus pesticides, chlorpyrifos and methyl parathion, both of which are known to have neurotoxic properties.

Children are especially susceptible to the harmful effects of pesticides because of their lower body mass, rapid development, and higher eating habits of fruits and vegetables. In children, exposure to certain pesticides in food can cause delayed development; disruptions to the reproductive and immune systems; certain types of cancer; and damage to other organs. 


What is being done to control pesticides use?

In the United States, pesticides are tested and approved for use by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which establishes maximum residue levels that describe the amount of a given pesticide that can safely remain in food.  The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is then responsible for monitoring pesticide levels on fruits and vegetables.

However, the FDA has been criticized for inadequate monitoring of pesticide levels on fruits and vegetables. Common criticisms of the FDA are: ineffective food samples for pesticide testing, problems with data analysis, and lack of authority to fine growers who use illegal pesticides. One of the critics is a non-profit health advocacy organization, The Environmental Working Group. EWG actually analyzed pesticide residue testing data from the FDA to come up with yearly lists of fruits and vegetables that have the highest levels of pesticide residue - among this year’s top 50:

  • Spinach
  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Lettuce
  • Kale/Collard greens
  • Green Onions

What to do? There are many actions you can take to minimize pesticide consumption. Washing fruits and vegetables helps remove some pesticide residues – but only for certain pesticides (others are not affected by washing).  Peeling fruits and vegetables is a more effective method of removing pesticide residue. Another way to avoid consuming pesticides along with your food is to eat organic produce, which generally have lower levels of pesticides – but are not necessarily pesticide-free. As we mentioned before, the only way to definitely avoid food that is contaminated with pesticides, is to grow it yourself. The vegetables mentioned above are easy to grow in your own home – if you have the right equipment. So that way, you know what you eat and what is on your food.


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