Not Blueberries! -- Produce and Pesticides

The Environmental Working Group has published its latest findings on pesticides in produce.  They publish a list that includes the 12 fruits or vegetables with the greatest number of pesticides and the 15 that have the least.  By avoiding the conventional (= not organic) versions of the “Dirty Dozen” you can drastically reduce your exposure to pesticides.  The website includes a printable version of their guide.  Find the full list of 49 fruits and vegetables ranked from best to worst here.

Should you bother to try to avoid pesticides?  In my public policy program, we read Risk and Reason, which pretty well convinced me that pesticides do not cause cancer.  I didn't worry about pesticides or hormones one bit while pregnant with my first child.  But when it came time to give #1 solid foods, a lot of the books brought up the issue of pesticides, and I started to look into it.  I still think pesticides probably do not cause a great cancer risk to healthy adults (since the benefits of the nutrients in the produce probably outweigh the risk of the pesticides used to grow the produce), but now I am concerned about the effect of pesticides on fetuses, infants, and children -- particularly the effect of endocrine disruptors (which practically every chemical and plastic seems to be).

Most of what I have read suggests that pesticide regulation is strong enough for adults, but not for fetuses, infants and children, who consume a much higher ratio of food-to-weight than adults.  I'm not sure I'll be so careful when my children are older, but for now, I buy the "Dirty Dozen" organic whenever I can.  Since I'm cheap, I mostly buy the "Clean 15" not-organic.  Organic is indisputably better for the environment, if not personal health.  Blueberries used to be on the low pesticide list, and I happily bought the 5-pound clamshell at Trader Joe's for my blueberry-loving family whenever it was available.  Now I'll have to rethink that purchasing behavior.

Here is what the Environmental Working Group has to say about pesticides and health:

As acknowledged by U.S. and international government agencies, different pesticides have been linked to a variety of health problems, including:

    * Nervous system toxicity
    * Cancer
    * Hormone system effects
    * Skin, eye and lung irritation

Pesticides are unique among the chemicals we release into the environment. They are designed to kill living organisms -- insects, plants, and fungi that are considered "pests." Because they are toxic by design, many pesticides pose health dangers to people, risks that have been established by independent research scientists and physicians across the world.

And here they discuss why children are at the greatest risk:

It is well established that pesticides pose a risk to vital organ systems that grow and mature from conception throughout infancy and childhood. Exposure to pesticides and other toxic chemicals during rapid development can have lasting adverse effects both in early childhood and later in life.

The metabolism, physiology and biochemistry of the fetus, infant and young child are fundamentally different from those of adults. A young organism is often less able to metabolize and inactivate toxic chemicals. It can be much more vulnerable to the harmful effects of pesticides. Chemicals that do no measurable harm to adults can subtly and sometimes permanently damage the nervous system, brain, reproductive organs and endocrine (hormone) system of the fetus and young child. The developing brain and endocrine system are extremely sensitive to subtle changes in hormone levels that signal transitions to different developmental stages. . . .

The Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 was designed to require protection of infants and children from pesticides. . . But much remains to be done, especially in protecting human health from pesticide mixtures and chemicals that have endocrine-disrupting properties. Not surprisingly, pesticide makers and agribusiness groups have been fighting strict application of the statute, particularly provisions that require an extra 10-fold level of protection for infants and children. 

Do you try to avoid pesticides in your children's food? 


  1. Hey Betsy, I didn't know you were blogging until I saw your FB page today. Anyway, I'm surprised that peaches and nectarines are on the dirty dozen list, because I've grown them, and they really don't suffer from pests much at all! Mine would have been organic, except that I did spray some pesticide down low on the trunk to avoid peach tree borers from attacking the tree (that's important because they're pretty common). But there really isn't a need to spray the fruit. Maybe only 5% of the fruit will actually get attacked by bugs (at least here in Utah). Sad that commercial ag overdoes it on a fruit that is so naturally resilient!

  2. Hey Steve, I really don't know enough about garndening/agriculture to comment. I can only surmise that there are other bugs in other places that prey on stone fruit. Also, I have read that to grow produce out of season (or to extend the growing season), growers have to use more fertilizer and more pesticides. The fact that stone fruit is high in pesticides also doesn't necessarily mean that growers use more pesticides on them -- could just be that they absorb more through their thin skin. I'm glad your kids are eating pesticide-free stone fruit.


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