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Strawberries, Spinach Top Dirty Dozen List of Produce Containing Pesticides

Report finds pesticide residues often remain on fruits and vegetables even after they are washed

For the second year in a row, strawberries topped the “Dirty Dozen” list of pesticide-contaminated produce that the Environmental Working Group complies every year. Spinach was a close second on the list of fruits and vegetables to avoid released by EWG last evening.

photo of strawberries with pesticidesPhoto by Jerry BurkeStrawberries topped the "Dirty Dozen" list of pesticide-contaminated foods, bad news for the average American who eats nearly eight pounds of fresh strawberries a year. 

Given that the average American eats nearly eight pounds of fresh strawberries a year, this isn’t the best news for most of us. EWG’s annual update of its “Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce” — which is based on an analysis of tests run by the US Department of Agriculture — found that the most contaminated sample of strawberries had a whopping 20 different pesticides.

Some of the chemicals detected on strawberries are relatively benign, but others are linked to cancer, reproductive and developmental damage, hormone disruption, and neurological problems. Spinach samples, meanwhile, had an average of twice as much pesticide residue by weight than any other crop. Three-fourths of spinach samples had residues of a neurotoxic pesticide that’s linked to behavioral disorders in young children and has been banned in Europe for use on food crops.

The analysis also found that nearly 70 percent of the 48 different conventional produce samples tested by the USDA were contaminated with residues of one or more pesticides. In all, USDA researchers found 178 different pesticides and pesticide breakdown products in the thousands of fruit and vegetable samples tested in 2016.

The pesticide residues remained on fruits and vegetables even after they were washed and, in some cases, peeled.

For the Dirty Dozen list, EWG singled out produce with the highest loads of pesticide residues. In addition to strawberries and spinach, this year’s list includes nectarines, apples, peaches, celery, grapes, pears, cherries, tomatoes, sweet bell peppers, and potatoes. Pears and potatoes were new additions to the list, displacing cherry tomatoes and cucumbers from last year's list.

And in especially gloomy news for a spicy food lover like me, the list has been expanded again this year to highlight hot peppers, especially jalapeno, Serrano, and Anaheim peppers. Though hot peppers do not meet EWG’s traditional ranking criteria, researchers found them to be contaminated with insecticides like acephate, chlorpyrifos, and oxamyl that are toxic to the human nervous system. These insecticides are banned on some crops but still allowed on hot peppers. The researchers recommend that people who frequently eat these peppers buy organic, and if that’s not possible, cook them, because pesticide levels typically diminish when food is cooked.

“Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables is essential no matter how they're grown, but for the items with the heaviest pesticide loads, we urge shoppers to buy organic,” Sonya Lunder, EWG senior analyst and lead author of the guide said in a statement. “If you can't buy organic, the Shopper's Guide will steer you to conventionally grown produce that is the lowest in pesticides."

The Shoppers Guide also includes “Clean Fifteen” — a list of produce least likely to contain pesticide residues. This year’s Clean Fifteen included, in descending order, sweet corn, avocados, pineapples, cabbage, onions, frozen sweet peas, papayas, asparagus, mangoes, eggplant, honeydew melon, kiwis, cantaloupe, cauliflower and grapefruit.

Among these 15, avocados and sweet corn were the cleanest — only 1 percent of samples showed any detectable pesticides, while more than 80 percent of pineapples, papayas, asparagus, onions and cabbage had no pesticide residues. The report says that multiple pesticide residues are extremely rare on Clean Fifteen vegetables (only 5 percent of these vegetable samples had two or more pesticides) and no single fruit sample from the clean list tested positive for more than four types of pesticides.

Lunder says it’s particularly important to reduce young children and infant's exposure to pesticides, especially organophosphates, because even low levels of exposure to these chemicals can be harmful.

When spoke with Lunder last year, she mentioned that some conventionally grown produce are safe to eat. For instance, vegetables from the brassicaceae family — such as cauliflower, cabbage, garden cress, bok choy, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and onions and garlic — that are naturally resistant to pests and therefore aren’t sprayed with as much pesticides.

Buying locally and buying produce that’s in season also helps, since storing and shipping produce requires more applications of pesticides, especially fumigants.

The EWG Shoppers Guide was released the same day as another report by the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food was presented to the world body. That report essentially says that we don’t need pesticides to produce enough food to feed the world. It notes that an average of 200,000 people across the world die from toxic exposure to pesticides every year and blames “systematic denial, fueled by the pesticide and agro-industry” for “the magnitude of the damage inflicted by these chemicals.”

“Implementing the right to adequate food and health requires proactive measures to eliminate harmful pesticides,” the UN report says.

Maureen Nandini Mitra, Editor, Earth Island Journal.Maureen Nandini Mitra photo
In addition to her work at the Journal, Maureen writes for several other magazines and online publications in the US and India. A journalism graduate from Columbia University, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Public Press, The New Internationalist, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, The Caravan and Down to Earth.

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