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Frequently Asked Questions About Produce and Pesticides

Should we eat more fruits and vegetables? What about the pesticide residues?


Agribusiness claims pesticide residues are safe. Are they right?


What can I do to reduce my exposure to pesticides?


How does EWG come up with the Shopper's Guide™?


Do we know enough about the effects of pesticides on people?


Should we eat more fruits and vegetables?

Yes! According to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, Americans have been eating roughly the same quantities of fruits and vegetables for some years (ERS 2010). For instance, in 1997, every American ate an average of 100.42 pounds of fresh fruit. In 2007, the number was 100.21 pounds.

This flat trend worries nutritionists, who recommend that adults and children consume at least two servings of fruits and three servings of vegetables daily (CDC 2009). The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that this advice is routinely ignored: less than a third of adults meet the current guidelines. Even more troubling, only one in three high school students eats enough fruit, and less than one in five eats the recommended amount of vegetables (CDC 2009a).

The health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure. Eating conventionally grown produce is far better than skipping fruits and vegetables. And with EWG’s Shopper’s Guide™, consumers don’t have to choose between pesticides and healthy diets.

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How much pesticide is on conventionally raised produce?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s tests have found widespread pesticide contamination on popular fruits and vegetables. At least one pesticide was found on 65 percent of the samples analyzed for the Shopper’s Guide™.

Ten percent of those samples had five or more different pesticide residues.

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Do all these pesticides mean I shouldn’t eat fruits and vegetables?

No, eat your fruits and vegetables! The health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure. Use EWG’s Shopper’s Guide™ to reduce your exposures as much as possible, but eating conventionally grown produce is better than not eating fruits and vegetables at all.

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Why should I be concerned about pesticides?

Pesticides are toxic by design. They are created expressly to kill living organisms -- insects, plants and fungi that are considered “pests.” Many pesticides pose health dangers to people. These risks have been confirmed by independent research scientists and physicians across the world.

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

  • brain and nervous system toxicity
  • cancer
  • hormone disruption
  • skin, eye and lung irritation

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Should I stop eating strawberries or nectarines or other produce items on your Dirty Dozen™ list?

No, that has never been the Shopper’s Guide™ message. We definitely recommend eating produce from the Dirty Dozen™ list rather than foods or snacks that are not as healthful, such as fat-, sugar- or additive-laden processed products. And with the Shopper’s Guide™, you can have all the benefits of eating more produce while reducing your exposure to pesticides.

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Major produce growers claimed that 98 percent of fresh fruits and vegetables tested have no detectable residues. True?

False. In a press release, United Fresh Produce, a trade association of conventional produce growers, packers, wholesalers, retailers and agricultural chemical makers, cited USDA testing data as evidence of produce safety, claiming that “98% of fresh fruits and vegetables tested had no detectable residues” (Blythe 2010). We wish its claim were true. But in fact, the data showed detectable residues on 65 percent of produce samples.

USDA tests each fruit and vegetable samples for dozens and sometimes hundreds of chemicals. But federal regulations do not permit all pesticides to be used on all crops. For example, the pesticides approved for use on apples are different from those approved for, say, onions. When USDA tests every sample for a vast array of chemicals, it’s not surprising that 98 percent of tests for individual chemicals come back negative, as “non-detects.” Still, a number of pesticides are approved for each crop, and they do show up in the data. That’s why USDA tests found 65 percent of the produce samples analyzed for the Shopper’s Guide to be tainted with one or more pesticides.

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Another trade group claims that 99 percent of food samples comply with pesticide residue restrictions. True?

The Alliance for Food and Farming claims that “99% of food samples analyzed did not contain pesticide residues above safety levels by the U. S. EPA” (Karst 2011). This is misleading. It’s true that nearly all samples meet legal limits, but legal isn’t always safe. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “safety” levels, called “tolerances,” help agency regulators determine whether farmers are applying pesticides properly.   If tolerance levels were set to protect all children eating produce, as we believe they should be, more fruits and vegetables would fail.

The 1996 Food Quality Protection Act required EPA to reevaluate its safety levels by 2006 to ensure they protected consumers from excessive pesticides. As a result, EPA barred some pesticides and restricted others, but EPA rules currently enforce still don’t protect people’s health.

Some liken pesticide tolerances to a 500 m.p.h. speed limit.   If the rules of the road are so loose that it’s impossible to violate them, then nobody can feel safe.

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Shouldn’t I try to buy everything organic?

EWG recommends buying organic whenever possible. Not only is it smart to reduce your exposure to pesticides, but buying organic sends a message that you support environmentally-friendly farming practices that minimize soil erosion, safeguard workers and protect water quality and wildlife.

However, we know that organics are not accessible or affordable for everyone, so we created the Shopper’s Guide™ to help consumers make the healthiest choices given their circumstances.

EWG always recommends eating fruits and vegetables, even conventionally grown, over processed foods and other less healthy alternatives.

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What if I wash and peel my fruits and vegetables?

The data used to create the Shopper’s Guide™ are from produce tested as it is typically eaten. This means washed and, when applicable, peeled. For example, bananas are peeled before testing, and blueberries and peaches are washed. Because all produce has been thoroughly cleaned before analysis, washing a fruit or vegetable would not change its ranking in the EWG’s Shopper’s Guide™. Remember, if you don’t wash conventional produce, the risk of ingesting pesticides is even greater than reflected by USDA test data.

EWG has not evaluated various produce washes for efficacy or potentially toxicity. Since some plants absorb pesticides systemically, a produce wash would have limited effect. The safest choice is to use the Shopper’s Guide™ to avoid conventional versions of those fruits and vegetables with the highest pesticide residues.

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How does EWG come up with the Shopper’s Guide™?

The Shopper’s Guide™ is based on laboratory tests done by the USDA Pesticide Testing Program and the Food and Drug Administration. Most data come from USDA tests, which include a large number of food crops and pesticide residues.

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How do you determine a fruit or vegetable’s ranking?

We combine six different measures of contamination to come up with composite score for each type of produce:

  • Percent of samples tested that had detectable pesticides
  • Percent of samples that had two or more pesticides
  • Average number of pesticides found on a sample
  • Average amount (in parts per million) of all pesticides found
  • Maximum number of pesticides found on a single sample
  • Total number of pesticides found on the commodity

To make the Dirty Dozen™ list as useful as possible, we present data on the fruits and vegetables that consumers are more likely to purchase. We combined kale and collard greens into single item called “leafy greens.” Corn on the cob and frozen corn are listed as “sweet corn.”

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Is there a difference between domestic and imported produce?

The Shopper’s Guide™ is based on samples of produce available to U.S. consumers and includes both domestic and imported produce. We typically combined testing results for domestic and imported fruits and vegetables. However, if we observed a big difference between a food’s imported and domestic scores, or found notable differences in the toxicity of particular pesticide residues, we took account of this in the ranking.

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What does “organic” mean?

“Organic” is a designation used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Organic Program to certify food that was produced without synthetic chemicals or fertilizers, genetic engineering, radiation or sewage sludge.

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Do we know enough about the effects of pesticide on people?

No. Americans are likely polluted with far more pesticides than current studies report. Agribusiness and pesticide companies are not required to determine whether their chemicals are present in people, not even for compounds that widely contaminate the food supply. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s national biomonitoring program has likely only scratched the surface in its efforts to determine the human body burden of pesticides.

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Do pesticides pose special risks to growing children?

Pesticides are designed to kill living organisms. The implications of wide-scale pesticide pollution of Americans’ bodies have not been definitively established. However, recent studies of neurotoxic organophosphate compounds used on some fruits and vegetables have found that children with high exposures were at greater risks of impaired intelligence and neurological problems.

Pesticide manufacturers and produce trade groups claim that no studies link pesticide residues in the diet to health risks. The fact is, the government has not done studies that would answer the many questions about pesticides’ impact on health. Neither has the industry. But lack of data about residue safety is not proof that pesticides are safe.

There is an extensive body of evidence demonstrating that pesticides harm workers, damage the environment and are toxic to laboratory animals. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is responsible for setting standards for pesticides in food that allow a sufficient margin of safety between human exposures and chemicals known to be harmful.

Because of the complexity of people’s diets, the variation in pesticide residues on foods and other lifestyle, genetic and environmental factors contributing to disease, it is difficult to pinpoint the risks of pesticides in the diet.

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What do human studies tell us about risks to children?

The most troubling evidence of pesticide toxicity to children comes from long-term studies tracking the effects of insecticides known as organophosphates.

Organophosphate pesticides have been shown to damage nervous system function by blocking acetylcholinesterase, an enzyme that stops nerve cells from firing. When nerve cells fire unceasingly, acute poisoning or long-term nerve damage can result. Several recent studies show that nervous system depression can have profound affects on children’s brain development.

Three epidemiological studies published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives in April 2011 showed a clear link between a mother’s exposure to organophosphate insecticides during pregnancy and deficits to children’s learning and memory that persisted through ages 6 to 9:

  • Columbia University researchers linked deficits in IQ and working memory among seven-year-olds born in New York City to prenatal exposure to the pesticide chlorpyrifos, an organophosphate that was popular for residential pest control until EPA banned its use in homes in 2001 (Rauh 2011). Children continue to be exposed to organophosphate pesticides that contaminate common foods (Lu 2008, 2010).
  • Researchers from the Mt. Sinai Medical Center linked prenatal organophosphate exposures among New York City-born children to impaired perceptual reasoning, a measure of nonverbal problem-solving skills (Engel 2011).
  • Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, found that children born in a Latino farmworker community to women with high organophosphate exposures had lower intelligence scores at age 7 than children born to women with lower pesticide exposures (Bouchard 2011).

Biomonitoring studies underscore why we should be concerned about everyday exposures to pesticides. A scientific paper by Devon Payne-Sturges of EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research estimated that 40 percent of children tested by CDC from 1999 to 2002 had unsafe levels of organophosphate in their bodies (Paynes-Sturges 2009).

In May 2010, researchers at Harvard University found increased risk for attention deficit-hyperactive disorder among American children exposed to typical levels of organophosphates (Bouchard 2010).

EPA has taken major steps to reduce the use of organophosphate pesticides in agriculture and residential settings, but researchers from Emory University in Atlanta have reported that young children continue to be exposed to organophosphates, primarily through their diets (Lu 2008, 2010). Children eat more fruits and vegetables than adults relative to their body weight. Studies in a California agricultural region have shown that infants are more at risk for organophosphate toxicity than older children and adults because their systems are less able to detoxify these chemicals. The most sensitive newborn was found to be 65 to 130 times more affected than the least sensitive adult (Furlong 2006, Holland 2006).

A 1993 report by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that “infants and children differ both qualitatively and quantitatively from adults in their exposure to pesticide residues in foods” and that some children exceeded safe levels of pesticides in their diets (NAS 1993).

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Are pesticides detected in people’s bodies?

Yes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s national biomonitoring program has detected pesticides in blood and urine samples from 96 percent of more than 5,000 Americans age 6 and older (CDC 2009b).

The agency reported finding 21 chemical biomarkers corresponding to 28 pesticides that can contaminate fresh fruits and vegetables, according to an EWG analysis of CDC and EPA data. More than 60 percent of Americans tested positive for seven or more of these pesticides and pesticide metabolites.

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Does eating organic food lower my pesticide exposures?

Yes. Studies led by Chensheng (Alex) Lu of Emory University found that elementary school-age children’s body burdens of organophosphate pesticides, including chlorpyrifos and malathion, peaked during the summer, when they ate the most fresh produce. But just five days after switching to an all-organic diet, their bodies were essentially pesticide-free (Lu 2006, 2008).

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Is government monitoring sufficient to assure the safety of conventional crops?

No. Neither pesticide residue monitoring nor dietary surveys adequately capture the variety of pesticide exposures for consumers.

In a study of Costa Rican farmers growing produce for the U.S. market, Dr. Ryan Galt of the University of California at Davis found that 12 of 15 pesticides used on squash, and 5 of 47 used on chayote, were not registered for use on food in the U.S. FDA inspection tests did not cover 71 percent of the chemicals used on squash and 61 percent used on chayote (Galt 2009). Some of these chemicals, notably n-methyl carbamates, were highly toxic. Galt found that U.S. agencies made little effort to determine which pesticides were being used in Costa Rica and that Costa Rican farmers had little access to Spanish language information about U.S. pesticide standards.

Between 1996 and 2006, 1.6 percent of domestic crops violated pesticide safety standards in FDA inspections, while imported crops earned violations at 2.25 times that rate (FDA 2008).

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Have pesticide restrictions improved the safety of the food supply?

Yes, but not enough. Between 1996 and 2009, EPA barred 6,224 pesticide uses, including some considered to pose the greatest risks to children (EPA OIG 2010). The 1996 Food Quality Protection Act requires EPA to review the safety of each particular use of each agricultural pesticide at least once every 15 years. The agency’s goal is to review all current pesticide uses by 2014.

EPA’s actions under the federal Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 have been credited with bringing about major reductions in pesticide pollution, particularly on foods commonly eaten by children.

Among EPA’s major public health successes:

  • EPA and manufacturers agreed to cancel some uses of methyl parathion – a compound considered to be the most toxic of the organophosphate class of pesticides – after a risk assessment showed that its use was unsafe for everyone (EPA 2006). The EPA decision reduced the dietary risk to children of this pesticide by an estimated 90 percent (EPA OIG 2006).
  • EPA phased out most non-agricultural uses of chlorpyrifos (Dursban) and restricted its use on tomatoes and apples (EPA 2008).
  • EPA barred diazinon use on about 20 different crops, primarily vegetables (EPA 2007).
  • EPA barred the neurotoxic pesticide carbofuran for all food crops (EPA 2009).

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How effective is the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996?

This act, among the strongest of U.S. public health laws, requires the EPA to set health-based standards for pesticides in food, considering exposure from water, indoor air, and food and cumulative pesticide risks. It has stressed protection of infants, children and other vulnerable people.

Agribusiness and pesticide companies have fought to weaken key protections in the law (Hornstein 2007). The American Crop Protection Association, which represents the pesticide industry, has waged a successful lobbying campaign to overturn EPA’s decision to incorporate a tenfold margin of safety into every risk determination as an additional protection for children’s health. When EPA’s Office of Research and Development recommended requiring pesticide companies to conduct a powerful, sensitive developmental neurotoxicity study, the industry objected, claiming that the study would be difficult and expensive. Industry prevailed.

EPA has only selectively applied the voluntary tenfold safety factor advocated by child health experts. In 2006, the National Academy of Sciences concluded that EPA has used a child-protective factor on 11 of 59 pesticide assessments, and in half of those cases only used a threefold safety factor instead of tenfold one (NAS 2006).

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Are other health agencies making progress to reduce pesticide contamination in food?

Yes. The California Department of Pesticide Regulation has reported that the “use of most pesticide categories decreased from 2007 to 2008… [and] chemicals classified as reproductive toxins decreased in pounds applied from 2007 to 2008 (down 1.7 million pounds or 10 percent) and decreased in acres treated” (CA DPR 2008).

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Are new pesticides safer?

Pesticides called pyrethroids and neonicotinoids are being used on fruits and vegetables in place of more toxic organophosphate and carbamate pesticides.

Neonicotinoids, a class of pesticides similar to nicotine, are the fastest growing class of insecticides. TheUSDA found neonicotinoid pesticides on about 20 percent of foods it surveyed, with frequent detections on grapes, cauliflower, cilantro and sweet bell peppers.

A decade of research has made it clear that neonicotinoids are highly toxic to honey bees and other pollinator species. Mounting evidence suggests that stresses caused by neonicotinoids play at least a contributory role in the colony collapse disorder plaguing global honeybee populations. Effective last December, the European Union enacted a continent-wide two-year moratorium on three neonicotinoid pesticides -- imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiametoxam. The moratorium was prompted by the determination that these pesticides posed a high acute risk to honeybees (European Commission 2013).

Neonicotinoids were developed as an alternative to highly toxic organophosphate and carbamate insecticides, which were responsible for serious neurological toxicity to farmerworkers and more subtle but pervasive damages to children’s brain and nervous system development. As such neonicotinods appear to be less toxic to humans than other common insecticides but are more environmentally persistent. Last year the European Union raised concerns that the two most common neonicotoids -- imidacloprid and acetamiprid -- may be neurotoxic to people and called for further research on potential effects on children (EFSA 2013).

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Blythe B. 2010. United Fresh: Group's 'Dirty Dozen' list bends facts. The Packer. 06/07/2010. Accessed July 14 2010 at http://thepacker.com/United-Fresh--Group-s--Dirty-Dozen--list-bends-facts/Article.aspx?oid=1105263&fid=PACKER-TOP-STORIES&aid=1662

Bouchard M, Bellinger D, Wright R, Weisskopf M. 2010. Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and Urinary Metabolites of Organophosphate Pesticides. Pediatrics 125: 1270-77.

Bouchard M, Chevrier J, Harley K, et al. 2011. Prenatal Exposure to Organophosphate Pesticides and IQ in 7-Year Old Children. Environ Health Perspect 119(8): 1189–1195.

CA DPR (California Department of Pesticide Regulation). 2008. Summary of pesticide use report data. Accessed July 10 2010 at http://www.cdpr.ca.gov/docs/pur/pur08rep/08chem.htm

CDC (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). 2009a. State Indicator Report on Fruits and Vegetables, 2009. Accessed 7/14/10 at: http://www.fruitsandveggiesmatter.gov/health_professionals/statereport.html

CDC (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). 2009b. Fourth National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals. Department of Health and Human Services

EFSA. 2013. Scientific Opinion on the developmental neurotoxicity potential of acetamiprid and imidacloprid. EFSA Journal. 11(12):3471. http://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/efsajournal/pub/3471.htm

Engel SM, Wetmur J, Chen J, et al. 2011. Prenatal Exposure to Organophosphates, Paraoxonase 1, and Cognitive Development in Childhood. Environ Health Perspect 119(8): 1182-1188.

EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency). 2009. Carbofuran Registration Review Status. Environmental Protection Agency. Case 0101. December 2009. Washington, DC. http://www.epa.gov/oppsrrd1/registration_review/carbofuran/carbo-rr-status.pdf

EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency). 2008. Federal Register. 2,4-D, Bensulide, Chlorpyrifos, DCPA, Desmedipham, Dimethoate, Fenamiphos, Metolachlor, Phorate, Sethoxydim, Terbufos, Tetrachlorvinphos, and Triallate; Tolerance Actions. September 17, 2008. 40 CFR Part 180. Vol 73, No. 181: 53732-53742. http://edocket.access.gpo.gov/2008/E8-21736.htm

EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency). 2007. Cancellation of Certain Agricultural Uses of Diazinon. Environmental Protection Agency. January 2007. Washington, DC.http://www.epa.gov/oppsrrd1/REDs/factsheets/diazinon_cancellation_fs.htm

EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency). 2006. Interim Reregistration Eligibility Decision for Methyl Parathion. Case No. 0153. July 2006. http://www.epa.gov/pesticides/reregistration/REDs/methyl_parathion_red.pdf

EPA OIG (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Office of Inspector General).2006. Opportunities to Improve Data Quality and Children's Health through the Food Quality Protection Act. EPA Office of Inspector General. 2006-P-00009.January 10, 2006. Washington DC.

EPA OIG (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Office of Inspector General). 2010. Audit Report: Fiscal Year 2009 and 2008 Financial Statements for the Pesticides Reregistration and Expedited Processing Fund. Report No 10-1-0087. EPA Office of Inspector General. March 30, 2010. Washington DC. http://www.epa.gov/oig/reports/2010/20100330-10-1-0087.pdf

ERS (Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture). 2010. Fruit and Tree Nut Yearbook Spreadsheet Files (89022). http://usda.mannlib.cornell.edu/MannUsda/viewDocumentInfo.do?documentID=1377

European Commission. 2013. Bees & Pesticides: commission goes ahead with plan to better protect bees. http://ec.europa.eu/food/animal/liveanimals/bees/neonicotinoids_en.htm

FDA (Food and Drug Administration). 2008. Pesticide Residue Monitoring Program Results and Discussion FY 2006. Food and Drug Administration. June 1, 2008. FDA.

Furlong CE, Holland N, Richter RJ, Bradman A, Ho A, Eskenazi B. 2006. PON1 status of farmworker mothers and children as a predictor of organophosphate sensitivity. Pharmacogenetics and Genomics 16(3): 183.

Galt RE. 2009. Overlap of US FDA residue tests and pesticides used on imported vegetables: Empirical findings and policy recommendations. Food Policy 34(5): 468-76.

Holland N, Furlong C, Bastaki M, Richter R, Bradman A, Huen K, et al. 2006.Paraoxonase Polymorphisms, Haplotypes, and Enzyme Activity in Latino Mothers and Newborns. Environmental Health Perspectives 114(7).

Hornstein DT. 2007. The Road Also Taken: Lessons from Organic Agriculture For Market- and Risk-Based Regulation. Duke Law Journal. 56:1541-80.

Karst T. 2011. "Updated: USDA: Overall pesticide residues below EPA limits. The Packer. May 25, 2011.http://www.thepacker.com/fruit-vegetable-news/USDA-overall-pesticide-residues-below-EPA-limits-122593354.html Viewed May 26, 2011.

Lu C, Toepel K, Irish R, Fenske RA, Barr DB, Bravo R. 2006. Organic diets significantly lower children's dietary exposure to organophosphorous pesticides. Environmental Health Perspectives 114(2): 260-3.

Lu C, Barr DB, Pearson MA, Waller LA. 2008. Dietary intake and its contribution to longitudinal organophosphorous pesticide exposure in urban/suburban children. Environmental Health Perspectives 116(4): 537-42.

Lu, C, FJ Schenck, MA Pearson and JW Wong. 2010. Assessing children's dietary exposure- direct measurement of pesticide residues in 24-hour duplicate food samples. Environmental Health Perspectives. 118(11):1625-30.

NAS (National Academy of Sciences). 1993. Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children. National Academy of Sciences, Commission of Life Science. Washington, DC. http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=2126

NAS (National Academy of Sciences). 2006. Toxicity Texting for Assessment of Environmental Agents. Interim Report. Committee on Toxicity Testing and Assessment of Environmental Agents, Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology, National Academies Press. http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?isbn=0309100925&page=132

Payne-Sturges D, Cohen J, Castorina R, Axelrad DA, Woodruff TJ. 2009. Evaluating cumulative organophosphorous pesticide body burden of children: a national case study. Environmental Science and Technology 43(20): 7924-30.

Rauh V, Arunajadai S, Horton M, Perera F, Hoepner L, Barr DB, et al. 2011. Seven-Year Neurodevelopmental Scores and Prenatal Exposure to Chlorpyrifos, a Common Agricultural Pesticide. Environmental Health Perspectives

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The Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides and Produce rates conventional produce with the most and least pesticides to help you shop smart.

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Harvard professor Chensheng (Alex) Lu explains why people should avoid pesticides.

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