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Monday, February 1, 1999

How 'Bout Them Apples

Pesticides in Children's Food Ten Years After Alar

View and Download the report here: How 'Bout Them Apples

Ten years after the American public demanded that the EPA ban the cancer-causing pesticide Alar, children are no better protected from pesticides in the nation’s food supply. Multiple pesticides known or suspected to cause brain and nervous system damage, cancer, disruption of the endocrine and immune systems, and a host of other toxic effects are ubiquitous in foods children commonly consume at levels that present serious health risks.

A series of new analyses of government pesticide records by the Environmental Working Group show that:

  • More than a quarter million American children ages one through five eat a combination of 20 different pesticides every day. More than one million children ages one through five eat at least 15 pesticides on any given day. And overall, 20 million children five and under eat an average of 8 pesticides a day, every day––a total of more than 2,900 pesticide exposures per child per year from food alone. Adults are also exposed to multiple pesticides in food.
  • Every day, 610,000 children ages one through five eat a dose of neurotoxic organophosphate insecticides (OPs) that the government deems unsafe (Table 1). This is equal to all the children ages one through five in the states of Washington and Oregon combined, eating an unsafe dose of OP insecticides every day. Some 61,000 of these children exceed the government’s safe daily dose of these pesticides by a factor of 10 or more. Exposure to neurotoxic compounds like lead, PCBs and OP insecticides can cause permanent long-term damage to the brain and nervous system when exposure occurs during critical periods of fetal development or early childhood.
  • More than 320,000 of these unsafe exposures are from one pesticide, methyl parathion.
  • Ten years after Alar, apples are still loaded with pesticides. More than half of the 610,000 children exposed to an unsafe dose of OP insecticides each day, get that dose by eating an apple, apple sauce or apple juice (Table 2). A child is just as likely to eat an apple with 9 pesticides on it, as he or she is to eat one with none. The average one year old gets an unsafe dose of OPs 2 percent of the time he or she eats just three bites of an apple sold in the United States. Some apples are so toxic that just one bite can deliver an unsafe dose of OPs to a child under five.
  • Pesticide concentrations increased from 1992 through 1996 on seven of eight foods heavily consumed by children. Cancer-causing pesticides led the way, increasing on six of the eight crops for which data are available for all five years. Levels of neurotoxic and endocrine disrupting pesticides remained essentially unchanged. No significant decreases in residues were reported for any group of pesticides. These results are based on data from the USDA Pesticide Data Program (PDP), a special pesticide testing initiative developed in response to the Alar events, that targets fruits and vegetables heavily consumed by children. Pesticide concentrations in the PDP are measured after the produce is washed and prepared for normal consumption

In 1993, the National Academy of Sciences published the landmark study, Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children. This five-year consensus report confirmed the central lesson of Alar: children need extra protection from pesticides and federal regulations do not provide it. Three years later, the Congress unanimously passed sweeping pesticide reform legislation that for the first time requires specific protection of infants and children from pesticides in food and environment. The EPA is moving slowly toward issuing new standards under this law. To date, however, no government standards have been set that specifically protect infants, children, or anyone else from the multiple pesticide exposures they experience each day.

Fortunately, parents can significantly cut their family’s exposure to pesticides by taking a few precautions when they shop for food.

Parents should feed their children a variety of fruits and vegetables, with emphasis on those with fewer pesticides on them. EWG analysis of comprehensive data of pesticides in food from the Food and Drug Administration data show that red raspberries, strawberries, apples, and peaches grown in the United States and cantaloupe from Mexico, are the foods most contaminated with pesticides (Table 3). The fruits least contaminated with pesticides were watermelon, bananas, kiwi, pineapple, and domestically grown cantaloupe. The least contaminated vegetables include corn, onions and peas.