Pesticides in Fruits and Vegetables

The food you eat is an important part of healthy living. And eating lots of fruits and vegetables are healthy choices. But what about the pesticides in fruits and vegetables? Buying organic produce, reducing the amount of imported produce you consume and properly washing your produce can help you reduce your exposure to pesticides.

Pesticides Used to Grow Fruits and Vegetables

It’s nearly impossible to list the pesticides found in all types of vegetables and fruits. There are over 1000 different pesticides that are used to grow crops. Plus there are many pesticides registered for use on the same crop. They include combinations of insecticides, fungicides and herbicides. Also, the specific pesticides used can vary with different growing seasons, different pest problems and the region or country where the crop was grown.

Sometimes pesticides end up on crops unintentionally when it drifts from other fields. Plants can also absorb pesticides that linger in soil for years after application. A good example of this is DDT, which was banned in the U.S in 1972. DDT takes a long time to breakdown in the soil (half life is 50 years). Because of this it is still a common pesticide residue found on produce, even organic fruits and vegetables.

You can use the widget below to investigate the pesticides found on different fruits and vegetables by the USDA.

Harmful Effects of Pesticides in Fruits and Vegetables

There are many health issues linked to pesticide exposure. Generally insecticides and fungicides are more toxic to humans than herbicides (2,4D and Atrazine are huge exceptions to this).

Many insecticides are neurotoxins and act on insects and humans in much the same way. Because they’re toxic to your nervous system, exposure to them is linked to Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

Fungicides are often applied near harvest time to prevent mold during transport.  They are classified as endocrine disruptors and carcinogens. Exposure to fungicides has also been linked to hypothyroidism and breast cancer.

Some herbicides, such as Atrazine, may cause cancer, reproductive or developmental effects, and endocrine system effects.


In 2010 the President’s Cancer Panel report  Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now had this to say “Nearly 1,400 pesticides have been registered by EPA for agricultural and non-agricultural use. Exposure to these chemicals has been linked to brain/central nervous system, breast, colon, lung, ovarian, pancreatic, kidney, testicular, and stomach cancers, as well as Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, multiple myeloma, and soft tissue sarcoma… Approximately 40 chemicals classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as known, probable, or possible human carcinogens, are used in EPA-registered pesticides now on the market.”

Pesticide Residues in Fruits and Vegetables

Every year the USDA tests for residues of 473 commonly used pesticides on fruits and vegetables. In 2012 it tested 7,715 samples of fruits and vegetables. Here’s a sampling of the results in the report published in 2014.

Bell Peppers

  • contained residues of 18 different pesticides (14 insecticides and 4 fungicides)
  • 37% of the samples contained the insecticide Oxamyl. 
  • 11% of the peppers sampled had residues of 5 different pesticides.

Cherry Tomatoes

  • contained residues of 17 different pesticides (8 insecticides, 8 fungicides and 1 acaricide).  
  • 25% of the samples contained the insecticide Bifenthrin.
  • 9% of the tomato samples had 5 residues of 5 different pesticides.

Snap Peas 

  • contained residues of 13 different pesticides (8 insecticides and 5 fungicides). 
  • 24% of the samples contained the insecticide Dimethoate.
  • 14.5 % contained 3 different pesticides

Tangerines

  • contained residues of 3 different fungicides. What’s notable is that 
  • 90% of the samples contained Imazalil and 72% contained Thiabendazole.
  • 12% of the samples contained residues of all 3 fungicides.

Many of the residues amounts found were within what are considered safe exposure levels (known as the MRL-maximum residue limit in mg/kg). Does that make your feel better? Consider this, pesticides usually contain many chemicals but safe exposure levels are only determined on single chemicals, not mixtures of chemicals. Also, for many pesticides there hasn’t been a safe exposure level determined yet. But they’re out there being used anyway.

Imported Versus Domestic Produce

So how do the levels of pesticides in fruits and vegetables grown domestically compare with imported produce? Is domestic produce safer than imported? Again, not a simple answer. It depends on the country where the fruits and vegetables come from and the types of produce. Some countries have different safe exposure levels and some pesticides that were banned in the U.S. are still used in other countries.

While imported produce is supposed to meet U.S. pesticide residue guidelines, only about 1% of all imports are tested by the FDA. Kinda scary considering one half of the fruits and a quarter of the vegetables that we consume are imported.

The most recent FDA pesticide monitoring results found that for domestic produce:

  • 37% of vegetables had pesticide residues
  • 2% of these residues were above the safe limit set for exposure

  • 60% of fruits had pesticide residues 
  • 2.4% were above the safe limit set for exposure

For imported produce:

  • 34% of vegetables had pesticide residues
  • 6.5% of these residues were above the safe limit set for exposure

  • 33% of fruits had pesticide residues 
  • 7% were above the safe limit set for exposure

So although there were pesticides found on a greater percentage of domestic produce, the unsafe levels of pesticides was 3 to 4 times higher for imported produce.

The USDA’s monitoring program reported that of the samples it tested that exceeded safe levels of pesticide residue, 86% were imported and 14% were domestic.

The FDA’s Countries of Concern

The FDA has identified the 5 countries with the highest percentage of pesticide residues above what is considered safe exposure. They are:

  • India – 23% of produce tested had residues above the limit
  • Vietnam – 12% of produce tested had residues above the limit
  • China – 8.5% of produce tested had residues above the limit
  • Guatemala – 7.1 % of produce tested had residues above the limit
  • Mexico – 6.9% of produce tested had residues above the limit (a lot of our imports are from Mexico)

One way to protect your health is to avoid or reduce the amount of produce you buy that was imported from these countries.

My Approach to Organic Produce

Everything I eat is not organic. The two reasons why are availability and the fact that I like to shop at farm stands during the summer. It’s tough to find organic produce at farm stands.

You might be wondering why the higher cost of organic produce is not a factor for me. It’s certainly not because I’m rich! It is because I prioritize how I spend my money. Although you can’t buy good health, you can buy healthy food and non toxic products to protect your health. That’s my priority.

However, there are some things that I won’t eat unless they’re organic. Apples are an example. And not just whole apples, but any products made from apples, such as apple sauce and juice. So what do I have against non organic apples?

The Environmental  Working Group publishes a list of the “Dirty Dozen” fruits and vegetables based on the number of pesticides found on them. Apples are always at the top of the list. Other produce that I avoid unless it’s organic include bell peppers, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, lettuce, grapes, celery, cucumbers, and cherry tomatoes. I always peel anything that’s not organic.

EWG's Dirty Dozen

The Environmental Working Group uses the USDA and FDA pesticide residue reports to compile their list of the fruits and vegetables that have the most pesticide residues. Here’s their current list of the top 12.

Fruits

Apples
Strawberries
Grapes
Peaches
Imported Nectarines
Cherry Tomatoes

Vegetables

Celery
Spinach
Bell Peppers
Cucumbers
Imported snap peas
Potatoes

If you’re considering switching to organic foods, the dirty dozen is a great place to start. I guarantee that once you try an organic apple you’ll be hooked.

Removing Pesticide Residues From Fruits and Vegetables

Before I talk about the methods you can use to remove pesticides from fruits and vegetables I want to point something out. All the fruits and vegetables that the USDA samples for pesticide residues are washed first under running water, just like you would do at home. In other words, the residues they found were STILL on the produce AFTER washing.

Also, as part of its pesticide sampling program, the FDA conducts a Total Diet Study. For this study they wash, peel and cook about a 1,000 samples of a variety of food and then measure the pesticide residues. In their most recent study they found six different pesticides in 10%-15% of the samples. I’ve read several studies that also show that washing and cooking will reduce but not completely remove pesticide residues.

How to Remove Pesticides From Fruits and Vegetables

You might be wondering whether it’s worth buying some type of produce wash to remove pesticide residues. Save your money (to buy more organic produce). A handful of studies have determined that washing your fruits and vegetables under running water is just as effective. Here are some steps for reducing pesticide residues from produce.

Steps

  • Wash produce under running water (more effective than soaking)
  • Scrub thick-skinned produce with a vegetable brush.
  • Peel what you can (peaches, cucs, squash etc.)
  • Dry with cloth or paper towels
  • Discard outer layers of any leafy vegetable before washing.

I threw a lot of information at you in this article, so let me bottom-line it. To reduce your exposure to pesticides on fruits and vegetables buy as much organic produce as is possible. Focus especially on the “Dirty Dozen”. Try to avoid produce grown in the 5 countries listed above. Finally, be diligent about washing and peeling your non organic produce.

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