Frequently Asked Questions About Produce and Pesticides

What are the most important things to know about the Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce™?

At EWG, we think consumers have the right to know what they’re being exposed to and what they can do about it. And we think most people would agree – which is why we have released our Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce™ each year since 2004.

The 2021 EWG Shopper’s Guide ranks the pesticide contamination of 46 popular fruits and vegetables. It is based on results of more than 46,000 samples of produce tested by the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration. Numerous peer-reviewed scientific studies have shown that consuming produce high in pesticide residues (like the items on our Dirty Dozen™) increases the risk of certain negative health impacts, and that choosing organic can have almost immediate impacts on the amount of residues in a person’s body.

Consumers seeking fresh produce with the lowest pesticide residues can buy organic versions of items on EWG’s Dirty Dozen and either organic or non-organic versions of produce on our Clean Fifteen™. There are also many organic and Clean Fifteen options in the frozen food aisle.

Everyone should eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, whether organic or conventionally grown. The health benefits of such a diet outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure.

As long as pesticides remain in use and turn up on produce, we’ll keep publishing the Shopper’s Guide. And we’ll keep investigating all the chemicals that can harm humans – especially children – as part of our ongoing fight for consumers’ right to live healthier lives in a healthier environment.

Can I catch Covid-19 from fresh produce?

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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "there is no evidence to support transmission of Covid-19 associated with food. Before preparing or eating food it is important to always wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds for general food safety. Throughout the day wash your hands after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing, or going to the bathroom."*

Many of the most recent outbreaks of foodborne illness have been caused by the consumption of tainted produce, including leafy greens and melon. To better protect consumers, both the CDC and the FDA recommend thoroughly washing fruits and vegetables before preparing and eating them.

Other tips to protect yourself and your family from getting ill from foodborne pathogens include peeling produce when possible, removing the outer layers of leafy greens, washing cutting boards and other food preparation surfaces with warm water and soap, and cooking vegetables at higher heat than you otherwise might.

Consumers may also want to review food safety guidance from the FDA, the USDA and the European Food Safety Authority.

* If you are experiencing symptoms associated with Covid-19, please consult your physician. This material is for general informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice.

How many pesticides are found on produce?

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The USDA’s tests have found widespread pesticide contamination on non-organic popular fruits and vegetables. Typically, at least one pesticide is found on about 70 percent of the non-organic produce USDA tests, EWG has found.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 also pose health dangers to people. These risks have been confirmed by independent scientists and physicians around the world, in addition to U.S. and international government agencies. The potential health problems connected to pesticides include brain and nervous system toxicity, cancer and hormone disruption.

Should I stop eating produce items on your Dirty Dozen list?

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No, that has never been the message of EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce.

We recommend eating produce from EWG’s Dirty Dozen rather than foods or snacks that are less healthy, such as fat-, sugar- or additive-laden processed foods.

If you do choose fruits and vegetables from EWG’s Clean Fifteen, you can have all the benefits of eating more produce while also 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 EWG believes they should be, more fruits and vegetables would fail to meet them.

The 1996 Food Quality Protection Act required the EPA to reevaluate its safety levels by 2006 to ensure they 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.

Should I try to buy everything organic?

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EWG recommends buying organic whenever possible. Reducing your exposure to pesticides is a smart move. Buying organic sends a message that you support environmentally friendly farming practices that minimize soil erosion, safeguard workers and protect water quality and wildlife.

But we know that organics are not accessible or affordable for everyone, so EWG’s Shopper’s Guide is designed to help consumers make the healthiest choices for their families, given their circumstances.

EWG always recommends eating fruits and vegetables, even if they are not organic, 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 tests conducted on produce prepared as it would be at home. 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.

But if you don’t wash conventional produce, the risk of ingesting pesticides is even greater than reflected by the USDA’s test data. We know this at least in part because the state of California tests for pesticides on unwashed and unpeeled produce, routinely finding even higher concentrations of pesticides than the USDA does.3

EWG has not evaluated produce washes for efficacy or potentially toxicity. The safest choice is to use EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to avoid non-organic 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 USDA Pesticide Testing Program and the FDA. Most of the data comes from USDA tests conducted on a large number of fruit and vegetable crops for a large number of pesticides.

How do you determine the ranking of a fruit or vegetable?

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We combine six different measures of contamination to come up with composite scores for each type of produce. They are:

  • 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 as useful as possible, we present data on the fruits and vegetables that consumers are more likely to purchase. (Note that we combine corn on the cob and frozen corn into one category called “sweet corn.”)

You can read more about our methodology here.

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 it includes both domestic and imported produce. We typically combine test results for domestic and imported fruits and vegetables. However, if we see a big difference between a food’s imported and domestic scores or find notable differences in the toxicity of particular pesticide residues, we take this into account when creating our lists.

What does “organic” mean?

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“Organic” is a designation used by the USDA 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 U.S. is genetically modified. Most Hawai’ian papaya is GMO. In 2016, the USDA estimated that 8 percent of sweet corn, 12 percent of squash and about two-thirds of papaya grown in the U.S. was GMO.

Of these, only GMO sweet corn is bred to withstand direct use of herbicides. Most starchy “field corn” and soy grown in this country are genetically modified to withstand direct applications of Roundup and sometimes 2,4-D, a lesser-known toxic herbicide with known health risks. 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 that 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 shoppers identify foods likely to contain genetically engineered ingredients.

Are government tests sufficient to ensure the safety of non-organic crops?

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No. Neither pesticide residue monitoring nor dietary surveys adequately captures the variety of pesticide exposures Americans face.

In 2014, the Government Accountability Office audited efforts by the FDA and the USDA to monitor pesticide residues on food crops. 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 EPA to set health-based standards for pesticides in food, considering exposures from water, indoor air, food and cumulative pesticide risks.

The law stresses the protection of infants, children and other vulnerable people. It requires the EPA to review the safety of each use of every 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, used only 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, instead of more toxic organophosphate and carbamate pesticides, are now being used to kill insects on fruits and vegetables.

Neonicotinoids are the fastest growing class of insecticides. The Department of Agriculture finds neonicotinoid pesticide residues on over 19 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 some 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, ultimately deciding to ban the outdoor use of these pesticides, in 2018.

The EPA currently considers neonicotinoids to be a relatively low risk to human health. But the National Toxicology Program, or NTP, reviewed the evidence for human safety in early 2017 and concluded that existing studies are incomplete. The NTP is reviewing the data on neonicotinoids to explore additional concerns they may pose for human health.10

Are pesticides detected in people's bodies?

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Yes. The CDC’s national biomonitoring program has detected pesticides in the blood and urine samples taken from 96 percent of more than 5,000 Americans ages 6 and older.5

And Americans are likely polluted far more with 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 are widely found in the food supply. The CDC’s national biomonitoring program has likely only scratched the surface in its efforts to determine the human body burden of pesticides.

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 rise again once they return to eating conventionally grown foods.6

What are the effects of pesticides on people?

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Pesticides are designed to kill living organisms. The implications of wide-scale pesticide pollution in Americans’ bodies have not been definitively established. However, 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.

There is an extensive body of evidence demonstrating that pesticides harm workers, damage the environment and are toxic to laboratory animals.

The EPA is responsible for setting standards for pesticides in food to ensure that exposures stay 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 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. Since then, the EPA 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 Mount 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, on the basis of the results of the Columbia University study. This led EPA scientists to conclude that even tiny amounts of chlorpyrifos on food posed a risk to children’s brain development.

However, former EPA 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 reregistration review, in 2022. Advocates sued the EPA to reinstate the chlorpyrifos ban and, in August 2018, the federal court ordered the agency to reestablish the ban.

In 2019, the EPA announced it would allow chlorpyrifos to continue to be used on non-organic crops. It is not allowed for use on organic produce. The registration review for chlorpyrifos is still ongoing and EWG has urged the EPA to ban all uses of chlorpyrifos, based on concerns for children’s health.

References

  1. .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. 2019. 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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