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Shoppers Guide to Pesticides in Produce

By Marie Oser, Managing Editor
May 1, 2009
File under: Healthy Eating, Organic, Produce


It’s probably not news to anyone that pesticides have been shown to have carcinogenic and other adverse health effects on humans and that organic produce is the best choice for people and for the planet.

Mounting evidence confirms that many commonly used pesticides can suppress the normal immune system response to invading bacteria, viruses, parasites and tumors.¹ The immune system is the body’s first line of defense and weakening its response can increase the incidence of disease.

A study by the National Cancer Institute identified pesticides as a likely cause of elevated rates of several forms of cancer among farmers². Farmers are at higher risk for certain cancers, such as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, skin melanomas, multiple myeloma, leukemia, and cancers of the lip, stomach, prostate and brain. Exposures to a number of pesticides have been linked to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, while exposure to insecticides has been associated with leukemia, multiple myeloma and brain cancer³.

A Center for Disease Control study issued in March of 2001 found a wide array of toxic chemicals in the bodies of American citizens, which cumulatively could lead to health problems. 4

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is an organization with offices in Washington, DC, Oakland, California and Ames, Iowa. EWG works to protect public health by influencing public policy and by providing informative resources like the Shoppers’ Guide to Pesticides in Produce.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets the acceptable pesticide residue levels for fruits and vegetables, however according to the Environmental Working Group the EPA tolerance levels are too high. The EWA argues that not enough studies have been done to measure the effects of low-level and multiple pesticide exposure, especially on children and fetuses.

After conducting an analysis of the results of 87,000 government tests conducted between 2000 and 2007, EWG developed the ‘Dirty Dozen’ list of the most contaminated fruits and vegetables. Peaches and apples each had the highest number of different pesticides, nine detected on a single sample; strawberries and imported grapes were next with eight pesticides. Nectarines had the highest percentage of samples testing positive for pesticides, 97.3 percent followed by peaches at 96.7 percent and apples with 94.1 percent.

Most shocking, the studies used to create the list tested produce after it had been rinsed or peeled.

EWG listed peaches, apples, celery, strawberries, imported grapes, lettuce, carrots and pears among the “dirty dozen” as containing the highest pesticide levels.  Those with the lowest levels were onions, avocados, frozen sweet corn and peas, pineapples, mangoes, asparagus, kiwi, bananas and cabbage. (Download the Dirty Dozen)

The full health risks associated with pesticides are unknown and most have never been systematically reviewed for the full range of possible long-term health effects, such as genetic damage or impaired nervous, endocrine or immune systems. 5

Data for pesticides used in nonagricultural settings is particularly lacking. 6

Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides

The Full List: 47 Fruits & Veggies


Note: EWG ranked a total of 47 different fruits and vegetables but grapes are listed twice because they looked at both domestic and imported samples.

  1. Christin MS, Gendron AD, Brousseau P, Ménard L, Marcogliese DJ, et al. (2003) Effects of Agricultural Pesticides on The Immune System of Rana Pipiens and on its Resistance to Parasitic Infection. Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry: Vol.22, No.5 pp.1127–1133
  2. A. Blair et al., “Clues to Cancer Etiology from Studies of Farmers,” Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment and Health 18, no. 4 (1992): 209-215.
  3.  Veterans and Agent Orange: Health Effects of Herbicides Used in Vietnam (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1993). Also see: National Research Council, Alternative Agriculture, 121; A. Blair et al., “Clues to Cancer Etiology from Studies of Farmers,” 109-215
  5.   Pesticides and the Immune System: The Public Health Risks (Washington, D.C.: World Resources Institute, 1996); Theo Colborn et al., “Developmental Effects of Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals on Wildlife and Humans,” Environmental Health Perspectives vol. 101 (1993):378-384.
  6.  Shelia Hoar Zahm, “Pesticides and Cancer,” in Occupational Medicine: State of the Art Reviews (Philadelphia: Hanley & Belfus, 1997), 274 (exposure of general population to pesticides);James C. Robinson et al., Pesticides in the Home and Community: Health Risks and Policy Alternatives (Berkeley: School of Public Health, University of California, 1994), 9, 48-50.
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An alternative approach to health, wellness and disease prevention. Marie Oser and her team of bloggers bring you creative natural solutions to issues affecting our health and wellbeing.

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