How would you like a dose of 67 pesticides with your celery? If you’re eating non-organic celery, that’s the number of pesticides you may very well be ingesting. According to the 2010 edition of Environmental Working Group’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides, the top 12 pesticide-contaminated fruits and vegetables contain 47 to 67 different pesticides per serving. This year celery is starring in the number 1 spot (up from number 4 last year), peaches moved down, and there are a few new contenders on the list.
I love Environmental Working Group (EWG), the hard-hitting and diligent nonprofit focused on public health. EWG analyzes nearly 100,000 produce pesticide reports from the USDA and the FDA–they then determine what fruits and vegetables contain the highest, and lowest, amounts of chemical residue and present the information in a handy shopper’s guide. I love (love, love) this list, it is so practical and puts the ability to eat safely in everybody’s hands. It’s a brilliant workaround.
Shoppers can use the list in two ways. If you are unable to buy organic produce, avoid the “Dirty Dozen” and instead opt for the “Clean 15.” If you can buy limited organic, purchase organically-grown items from the Dirty Dozen, and continue buying non-organic selections from the Clean 15. Of course, in a perfect world we wouldn’t be contending with pesticides at all–but in this imperfect world at least we have some tools to help navigate around the n-methyl carbamates and organophosphate pesticides. (Did you know that some of the most commonly used pesticides today were originally derived from nerve gasses developed during World War II? Fun fact. Sigh.)
Anyway, by avoiding the 12 most contaminated fruits and vegetables, you can lower your pesticide consumption by nearly 80 percent. So, at least there’s that. Here’s where to start, number 1 being the most contaminated:
The Dirty Dozen
Try to buy these 12 fruits and vegetables grown organically. But also know that many small farms can’t sustain the paperwork and fees to be certified Organic, even though they practice organic methods. If you shop at a farmer’s market and want to buy products not listed as organic, ask the vendor anyway, there’s a good chance many of the products were grown without the use of pesticides.
- Domestic blueberries
- Sweet bell peppers
- Spinach, kale and collard greens
- Imported grapes
The Clean 15
Produce with a strong outer layer seems to have defense against pesticide contamination. Although buying only organic is the first choice, if you are unable to do so, EWG recommends these non-organic fruits and vegetables which contain little to no pesticides, number 1 being the cleanest:
- Sweet corn
- Sweet peas
- Kiwi fruit
- Sweet potatoes
- Sweet onions
Although the government says that consuming pesticides in low amounts doesn’t harm you, studies show an association between pesticides and health problems such as cancer, attention-deficit (hyperactivity) disorder and nervous system disorders and say exposure could weaken immune systems. Last month, the President’s Cancer Panel, generally not the most alarmist of bodies, stated that “our lackadaisical approach to regulation may have far-reaching consequences for our health” and recommended giving preference to food grown without pesticides, chemical fertilizers and growth hormones.
After all, as previously mentioned, many of these chemicals are derived from chemical warfare agents repurposed to kill insects, how healthy can that be for us? The herbicide Agent Orange (developed by Monsanto, maker of the most widely-used herbicide, Roundup…grrrr) was used in the Vietnam War in the herbicidal warfare program–a form of chemical warfare meant to destroy the plant-based ecosystem, agricultural food production, and plant cover. Many Vietnamese people were exposed to Agent Orange, resulting in approximately 400,000 deaths and disabilities, and 500,000 children born with birth defects. And that makes sense, why would chemical concoctions designed to kill plants and insects not be harmful to humans?
One other note: The pesticide tests used for gathering this information were conducted after the food had been power-washed by the USDA. Although some pesticides are found on the surface of foods, other pesticides may be taken up through the roots and into the plant and cannot be removed. Which is to say, washing is not an effective fix.