With its Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce™, released almost every year since 2004, EWG’s goal is to educate the public about pesticides on popular fruits and vegetables, so consumers can make the best decisions for their families when navigating the produce section of their grocery stores.
The Shopper’s Guide includes the Dirty Dozen™ and the Clean Fifteen™ – EWG’s lists of the most and least pesticide-contaminated non-organic fresh fruits and vegetables, respectively, based on the latest tests by the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration.
In 2023, residues of 251 different pesticides and pesticide breakdown products were found on 75 percent of the non-organic, or conventional, produce tested by the USDA and the FDA, consistent with a trend highlighted in previous Shopper’s Guide reports.
Before testing fruits and vegetables, the USDA washes, scrubs and peels them as consumers would, so it’s not accurate to say that those concerned about ingesting pesticides should just wash their produce thoroughly.
When organic fruit and vegetable options are unavailable or unaffordable, EWG advises shoppers to buy produce from its Clean Fifteen list of produce with low or no traces of pesticides. This year, almost 65 percent of Clean Fifteen samples had no detectable pesticide residues.
EWG’s 2023 Shopper’s Guide combines data from USDA and FDA tests conducted between 2002 and 2021 of 46 fruits and vegetables, using the most recent years of data available for each fruit or vegetable. (Almost all the data comes from the USDA.) The newest data released by the agencies included results of tests of more than 45,000 samples of produce. The USDA does not test every fruit and vegetable every year, nor does it test produce for all pesticides used on the market.
Legal does not mean safe
For the more than 70 percent of conventional produce with detectable pesticides, nearly all the levels found by USDA and FDA tests fall within the legal limits allowed by government regulations.
But legal does not always mean safe.
Pesticides are toxic by design. Although they’re intended to kill pests such as fungi, insects and plants, many pesticides are also linked to serious human health issues, including hormone disruption, brain and nervous system toxicity, and cancer. These hazards have been confirmed by independent scientists and physicians and U.S. and international government agencies.
Recent research from Harvard University shows that consuming fruits and vegetables with high levels of pesticide residues may offset the protections that eating such foods normally provides against cardiovascular disease and mortality.
Numerous peer-reviewed scientific studies have shown that consumption of produce high in pesticide residue, like the items on our Dirty Dozen list, increases the risk of certain health harms, and that choosing organic can almost immediately reduce the amounts of residues in a person’s body.
Greater threats for children
Babies and children are particularly vulnerable to many of the health harms associated with pesticide exposure. Research published by EWG in 2020 found that the Environmental Protection Agency, which oversees pesticide safety, is failing to adequately consider children in setting legal limits for 90 percent of the most common pesticides.
The threats pesticides pose to children’s health have been known since at least 1993, when the National Academies of Science published a landmark study warning of inadequate oversight. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends parents concerned about their children’s exposure to pesticides consult EWG’s Shopper’s Guide.
The conventional agriculture industry, and even the EPA, often claim pesticides are safe, right up until the moment the pesticides are banned because of overwhelming evidence of their toxicity to humans.
Chlorpyrifos is a great example. Scientists have definitively linked the pesticide to brain damage in children and fetuses.
For decades, chlorpyrifos was used on many fruits and vegetables, though the conventional agriculture and pesticide industries repeatedly downplayed the dangers it poses to both children and farmworkers. Finally, in 2021, the EPA banned all uses of chlorpyrifos on crops grown for food.
And many pesticides still used legally in the U.S. have been banned in the European Union because of the science showing threats to human health and wildlife. That includes four toxic neonicotinoids – imidacloprid, thiamethoxam, clothianidin and dinotefuran – that remain legal for use here, even though the EPA has acknowledged their danger to insects like honeybees.