Frequently Asked Questions About Produce and Pesticides

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

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What can I do to reduce my exposure to pesticides?

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How does EWG come up with its Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce™?

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

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Should we eat more fruits and vegetables?

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Yes! According to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, Americans have been eating roughly the same quantities of fruits and vegetables for years.1

This flat trend worries nutritionists, who recommend that adults and children consume at least two servings of fruit and three servings of vegetables daily. 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.

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 to Pesticides in Produce™, consumers don’t have to choose between pesticides and healthy diets.

How many pesticides are on conventionally grown produce?

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The Department of Agriculture’s tests have found widespread pesticide contamination on popular fruits and vegetables. At least one pesticide was found on nearly 70 percent of the produce analyzed by EWG, based on samples collected annually by the USDA.2

Why should I be concerned about pesticides?

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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 scientists and physicians across the world.

As acknowledged by U.S. and international government agencies, pesticides have been linked to a variety of health problems, including brain and nervous system toxicity, cancer, and hormone disruption.

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

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No, that has never been the Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce™ 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 foods. And by choosing produce on the Clean Fifteen™ list, you can have all the benefits of eating more produce, while reducing your exposure to pesticides.

Are pesticide residues legal? Safe?

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Most pesticide residues fall below government limits and are legal. But legal limits aren't always safe. The 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 the EPA to reevaluate its safety levels by 2006 to ensure it protected consumers from excessive pesticide use. As a result, the EPA barred some pesticides and restricted others, but current EPA rules still don’t protect people's health.

Some liken pesticide tolerances to a 500 mph speed limit: If the rules of the road are so loose that it's impossible to violate them, nobody can feel safe.

Shouldn't I try to buy everything organic?

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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 EWG's Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce™ to help consumers make the healthiest choices given their circumstances.

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

What if I wash and peel my fruits and vegetables?

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The data used to create EWG's Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce™ is from produce tested as it is typically eaten. This means it’s 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 EWG’s Shopper’s Guide. Remember, if you don’t wash conventional produce, the risk of ingesting pesticides is even greater than reflected by the Department of Agriculture test data. California tests for pesticides on unwashed and unpeeled produce. Its tests routinely find much higher concentrations of pesticides.3

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 EWG Shopper's Guide to avoid conventional versions of those fruits and vegetables with the highest pesticide residues.

How does EWG come up with its Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce™?

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EWG's Shopper’s Guide is based on laboratory tests done by the Department of Agriculture’s Pesticide Testing Program and the Food and Drug Administration. Most data come from USDA tests, which include a large number of fruit and vegetable crops, and a large number of pesticides.

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

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We combine six different measures of contamination to come up with composite scores 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 crop

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."

Is there a difference between domestic and imported produce?

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EWG's Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce™ 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 rankings.

What does "organic" mean?

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

What about genetically engineered crops? Why is sweet corn on the Clean Fifteen™ list?

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A small percentage of sweet corn, zucchini and yellow squash sold in the United States is genetically modified. Most Hawaiian papaya is GMO. Genetically modified potatoes and apples may soon hit store shelves. In 2016, the Department of Agriculture estimated that 8 percent of sweet corn, 12 percent of squash and about two-thirds of papaya grown in the United States was GMO. Of these, only GMO sweet corn is bred to withstand direct use of herbicides. USDA tests from 2015 show virtually no pesticide residues on sweet corn samples, which presumably include some GMO samples. Americans who want to avoid eating any GMO produce should buy organic fruits and vegetables.

Most starchy “field corn” and soy grown in the United States is genetically modified to withstand direct applications of Roundup and sometimes also 2,4-D. These crops are processed into oils, corn syrup and other common ingredients in processed foods. If you want to avoid genetically modified foods look for items that are organic or bear the "Non-GMO Project Verified" label. We recommend that people use EWG's Shopper's Guide To Avoiding GMO Food, Food Scores database and Healthy Living app, which can help identify foods likely to contain genetically engineered ingredients.

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

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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 found in the food supply. The 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.

Pesticides are designed to kill living organisms. The implications of wide-scale pesticide pollution in 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. But 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 Environmental Protection Agency is responsible for setting standards for pesticides in food to ensure that people’s exposures are well below the doses known to be harmful.

But 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 rule out the risks of pesticide residues in the American diet.

What do human studies tell us about risks to children?

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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. Over the subsequent decades, the Environmental Protection Agency has banned or restricted many highly toxic pesticides. However, scientists have presented more, troubling information about the effects of currently used pesticides on children’s growing bodies.

For example, 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. Many recent studies show that even subtle nervous system depression can have profound effects on brain development during pregnancy and childhood. 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.4

Three epidemiological studies published jointly in 2011 showed a clear link between an American mother’s exposure to organophosphate insecticides during pregnancy and deficits in children’s learning and memory that persisted through ages 6 to 9:

  • Columbia University researchers linked deficits in IQ and working memory among 7-year-olds born in New York City to prenatal exposure to the pesticide chlorpyrifos, an organophosphate that was popular for residential pest control until the EPA banned its use in homes in 2001. Children continue to be exposed to organophosphate pesticides that contaminate common foods.
  • 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.
  • Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, found that children in a farmworker community born to women with high organophosphate exposures had lower intelligence scores at age 7 than children born to women with lower pesticide exposures.

Between 2014 and 2017, EPA scientists reviewed a key organophosphate, chlorpyrifos, based on the results of the Columbia University study, which led EPA scientists to conclude that even tiny amounts of chlorpyrifos on food posed risks to children’s brain development. However, Administrator Scott Pruitt overturned a proposed ban on the chemical in March 2017, and indicated that chlorpyrifos would remain on the market until the EPA completes its scheduled re-registration review in 2022. Advocates are suing the EPA to reinstate the chlorpyrifos ban.

Are pesticides detected in people's bodies?

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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 ages 6 and older.5

As expected, food residues are the dominant source of pesticide exposures. Several studies have demonstrated that pesticide exposures drop when people switch to an all-organic diet and rebound once they return to eating conventionally grown foods.6

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

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No. Neither pesticide residue monitoring nor dietary surveys adequately capture the variety of pesticide exposures Americans face. The Government Accountability Office audited the Food and Drug Administration and Department of Agriculture’s efforts to monitor pesticide residues on food crops in 2014. It identified key deficiencies, like the USDA’s failure to test foods for residues of five commonly used pesticides: glyphosate; 2,4-D; mancozeb; MCPA; paraquat and methyl bromide.7 Glyphosate and 2,4-D are herbicides with growing uses for genetically engineered commodity crops –people are likely to ingest more of these residues in processed foods as the use of GMO crops increases.

Have pesticide restrictions improved the safety of the food supply?

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Yes, but not enough. The Food Quality Protection Act, passed in 1996, mandates strong protections for public health. This act requires the Environmental Protection Agency to set health-based standards for pesticides in food, considering exposures from water, indoor air, food and cumulative pesticide risks. The law stressed the protection of infants, children and other vulnerable people. It requires the EPA to review the safety of each particular use of each agricultural pesticide at least once every 15 years. Over the past two decades, the EPA has restricted many uses of toxic insecticides like the organophosphates.

But the EPA has only selectively applied the voluntary tenfold safety factor advocated by children’s health experts. In 2006, the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the EPA has used a child-protective factor on 11 out of 59 pesticide assessments, and in half of those cases only used a threefold safety factor instead of a tenfold safety factor.8

Are newer pesticides safer than older versions?

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Pesticides called neonicotinoids are now being used to kill insects on fruits and vegetables, instead of more toxic organophosphate and carbamate pesticides.

Neonicotinoids are the fastest growing class of insecticides. The Department of Agriculture finds neonicotinoid pesticide residues on 15 to 20 percent of foods it surveys, with frequent detections on cherries, lettuce, spinach, cauliflower, tomatoes, strawberries and sweet bell peppers.

A decade of research has made it clear that neonicotinoids are highly toxic to honeybees and other pollinator species. Mounting evidence suggests that stresses caused by neonicotinoids play at least a contributory role in the colony collapse plaguing global honeybee populations. The European Union enacted a continent-wide moratorium on three neonicotinoid pesticides – imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam – in 2013. The moratorium was prompted by the determination that these pesticides posed an acute risk to honeybees.9 In the intervening years, EU scientists have reviewed thousands of studies of potential harms to pollinators and birds. The governing body should vote in 2018 on a proposal to permanently restrict the use of these insecticides on European crops.

The Environmental Protection Agency currently considers neonicotinoids to be relatively low risk to human health. But the National Toxicology Program reviewed the existing evidence on human safety in early 2017 and concluded that existing studies are incomplete. The NTP is currently testing neonicotinoids to explore any additional concerns they may pose for human health.10

References:

  1. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Fruit and Tree Nut Yearbook. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, 2017; 89022.Available at usda.mannlib.cornell.edu/usda/ers/89022/2017/FruitandTreeNutYearbook2017.pdf
  2. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Pesticide Data Program. 2017. Available at www.ams.usda.gov/datasets/pdp
  3. California Department of Pesticide Reform, Pesticide Residues on Fresh Produce. 2015. Available at www.cdpr.ca.gov/docs/enforce/residue/resi2015/rsfr2015.htm
  4. Clement Furlong et al., PON1 Status of Farmworker Mothers and Children as a Predictor of Organophosphate Sensitivity. Pharmacogenetics and Genomics, 2006; 16(3):183. Available at www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16495777. See also: Nina Holland et al., Paraoxonase Polymorphisms, Haplotypes, and Enzyme Activity in Latino Mothers and Newborns. Environmental Health Perspectives, 2006; 114(7). Available at www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16835048
  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Fourth National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals. Department of Health and Human Services, 2009.
  6. Chensheng Lu et al., Dietary Intake and Its Contribution to Longitudinal Organophosphorous Pesticide Exposure in Urban/Suburban Children. Environmental Health Perspectives, 2008; 116(4):537-542. See also: Chensheng Lu et al., Assessing Children's Dietary Exposure: Direct Measurement of Pesticide Residues in 24-Hour Duplicate Food Samples. Environmental Health Perspectives, 2010; 118(11):1625-1630. See also: Cynthia L. Curl et al., Estimating Pesticide Exposure from Dietary Intake and Organic Food Choices: The Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA). Environmental Health Perspectives, 2015. Available at ehp.niehs.nih.gov/1408197/
  7. Government Accountability Office, Food Safety: FDA and USDA Should Strengthen Pesticide Residue Monitoring Programs and Further Disclose Monitoring Limitations. 2014; GAO-15-38.
  8. National Academy of Sciences, 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, 2006. Available at www.nap.edu/openbook.php?isbn=0309100925&page=132
  9. European Commission, Bees & Pesticides: Commission Goes Ahead with Plan to Better Protect Bees. 2013. Available at ec.europa.eu/food/animal/liveanimals/bees/neonicotinoids_en.htm
  10. Andria Cimino et al., Effects of Neonicotinoid Pesticide Exposure on Human Health: A Systematic Review. Environmental Health Perspectives, 2017; DOI:10.1289/EHP515. Available at ehp.niehs.nih.gov/ehp515/

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