FAQs About Pesticides in Food
Do organic foods contain lower levels of pesticides?
Yes. In 1997, Consumer Reports did a study on 100 pounds of produce, some with organic labels and some not, and selected randomly from supermarkets across the country. Twenty-five percent of the organic samples had traces of pesticides compared with 77 percent of the unlabeled samples. While the tests showed that “organic” didn’t necessarily mean “pesticide-free,” organic foods consistently had lower amounts of toxic pesticide residues. In addition, their testers couldn’t detect any difference in taste between organic and unlabeled produce.
Doesn’t the government monitor pesticides?
Like most government agencies, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are trying to balance what is good for the economy and what is good for health. Laws require that pesticides in food not exceed certain minimal levels, while acknowledging that pesticides are necessary to produce an “…adequate, wholesome, and economical food supply.” In plain language, the government accepts a bit of a risk as long as a pesticide keeps the price of food down and the supply up. However, there’s always controversy about what should be “minimal allowable levels;” neither scientists nor government officials can agree on what level of risk is acceptable. Logically, pesticides should be treated like drugs, which must be proven safe before being approved for widespread use. With the current laws, pesticides must be proven harmful before they are banned.
Don’t expect the government to make your food safe on its own.
New pesticides are being developed faster than government agencies can monitor them. Although the Government Accounting Agency (GAA), Congress’s watchdog, has gotten after the FDA to clean up the mess, government agencies haven’t been able to stunt the growth of pesticide use. Consumer groups, such as the Natural Resources Defense Counsel (NRDC), try to expose the ways in which these agencies are not doing their jobs, but consumers do not wield the power of the food- industry lobby. The bottom line is that the government really doesn’t know and the food industry won’t tell what pesticides really get into the food supply. And consider this, whoever’s in charge now — in Congress or the various administrative agencies — won’t be around decades from now when the consequences of current pesticide use show up in the cancer rates of the U.S. population.
Understanding more about how the testing is done reveals the magnitude of this problem. The FDA and EPA actually test only a fraction of the pesticides used in food production, and even the results of those tests are of questionable value. Testing is done with animals that are given various amounts of these chemicals and then examined for ill effects. Besides obvious problems, such as death, paralysis, tumors, and growth retardation, the tissues are examined for microscopic evidence of cell damage. Once a level is found that causes no identifiable damage, a fraction of that level is extrapolated to humans as the “maximum acceptable level” – the level of pesticide residue in a food that is legally acceptable.
Yet, what is legal may not be completely safe for the following reasons:
- Levels of pesticides that cause no apparent effects in the animal and satisfy a committee are not necessarily safe for humans. The process of extrapolating results from animal studies to humans is plagued with errors. How do you measure subtle I.Q. changes in a rat?
- These studies measure short-term effects, not long-term damage. This concern is especially important in children who consume small amounts of pesticide residue accumulating over a long period of time, possibly causing damage years later, perhaps even in the next generation.
- How animals are tested does not reflect how humans eat. Usually one or a few chemicals are tested on an animal. In reality, we may eat a hundred different pesticides. Chemicals have a synergistic effect, meaning that two plus two sometimes adds up to five or more. When you put a bunch of chemicals together, all of them combined may produce more harm than each one separately.
- The EPA does batch testing. If you lump 100 pounds of potatoes together and test the batch, you get an average pesticide level. But what if the chemicals are actually concentrated in a few potatoes, and your child eats one of these “hot” potatoes?
- There are facts the government doesn’t know and the industry won’t tell. Ingredients are labeled “inert” because they have no known pest-killing action, not because they are harmless to humans. Even though the EPA has recently identified 110 inert ingredients as hazardous, there are no food standards or tolerance limits for inerts. Also, the FDA does not monitor foods for inert ingredients, and pesticide manufacturers consider inerts trade secrets and seldom list them on package labels.
Protecting kids against pesticides
Could pesticides harm children more than adults?
Absolutely. In 1989 the National Resources Defense Council released results of the most comprehensive analysis ever conducted on pesticide residues in foods commonly eaten by children. This study, called Intolerable Risk: Pesticides in Our Children’s Foods, identified 66 potentially carcinogenic pesticides in foods that a child might eat. The researchers in this report estimated that children have four times as much exposure as adults to eight of these carcinogenic pesticides. These are some reasons why kids and pest-killers don’t mix:
- The “maximum acceptable levels” allowed by government agencies are based upon estimates of the harm in adults, using adult eating habits and adult weights. Children’s eating habits are different from those of adults. They eat proportionally more contaminated food on a volume-per-weight basis than adults. Infants and children consume much more fruit and juice than adults. They also do not eat the variety of foods that adults do, often binging on applesauce, for example, three days in a row.
- Cancer researchers believe that prolonged exposure to a toxic chemical may have a cumulative effect. You don’t all of a sudden “get cancer.” You get cancer one pesticide- polluted cell at a time. Today’s children will be exposed to toxic chemicals over a longer time, so they face greater health risks as adults.
- Another cancer fact is that rapidly dividing cells (like those of growing infants and children) are more susceptible to damage from carcinogens, such as pesticides.
- Some pesticides have been implicated as being neurotoxic, or brain damaging. It’s possible that the brain is most susceptible to damage when it is growing the fastest, that is, during the first year of life.
- Children swim in rivers and lakes and drink a lot of municipal water, which brings up concerns about second-hand pollution. Not only do pesticides pollute the farms, but they pollute the water that drains those farms. The brain-toxic chemicals that are sprayed on strawberries miles away may some day come out the family faucet.
- In 1998 a private organization called the Environmental Working Group analyzed USDA, FDA, and EPA data on current pesticides in food and concluded that over one million children consume more than the “safe” adult dose of potentially brain-damaging poisons daily. Since children are more vulnerable to the effects of chemicals, this is an alarming situation. However, the toxic effects may not show up in standard animal testing and measuring the effects in groups of kids would be nearly impossible. Again, we go back to the drawing board of common sense: any chemical that kills a pest, can’t be good for the brain of a child.
- The liver has the job of breaking down chemical toxins so that they can be eliminated from the body. An infant’s liver is less mature and may have less capacity to detoxify chemicals.
- Pesticides are stored in fat. Children, especially infants, have proportionally more body fat than adults do.
What you can do?
The information presented here is not meant to scare you, but to motivate you to take action about a potentially serious problem that affects ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren. Here’s how you can protect your children against pesticides.
Just say no.
Don’t buy poisonous food. Parents are at the top of the food chain. Suppose 100 parents on a given day went into their local supermarket and asked “Where is your organic food section?” It wouldn’t take long before that store had organic produce on the shelf. Grocers purchase what consumers ask for; wholesalers supply what grocers ask for; and farmers grow what wholesalers buy. If you buy it, farmers will grow it. The law of supply and demand starts with you.
Control the top of the food chain when it comes to food prices.
Since price is based on supply and demand, the more pesticide-free food you demand, the greater will be the supply, which will bring prices of organic food down to the level of chemical food.
Lobby for safe food laws.
The government is not going to make food safe for you and your children just because it’s the right thing to do. Parents and consumers must take the initiative. Why? Because your motive is pure: to protect the health of yourselves and your children. Any government motive is laced with residues of trying to please various powerful lobbies- allow a little bit of cancer in return for a little bit of pesticides in the food supply, if this means you have a happier food grower more likely to make campaign contributions to influential representatives in Congress. Put the right spin on it, and most voters don’t know what’s really going on. Of course, the people most at risk, babies and children, don’t even have a vote. To get your views heard, support organizations interested in a safe food supply, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), 40 West 20th Street, New York, NY 10011 (or visit Another way you can influence the food chain is to write to your local congressional representatives and ask them to support laws that ban chemical farming. This will also prompt manufacturers to produce safer pesticides. Farmers will use what manufacturers produce; and eventually the price of organic food will go down and the safety of food will go up. Everyone wins.
Pay a price.
Many consumers pay more attention to price than the product, at least when it comes to food. We may be willing to pay a bit more for gas that makes our car run better, clothing that looks, feels, and wears better; or even for shoes that display a designer trademark, yet we quibble about paying a few cents more for a safer apple. Meanwhile, the organic produce salesman is warning: “Pay me now, or pay the doctor later.” Until the food chain changes, expect to pay more for pesticide-free food. At present, only around 2 percent of the food produced by U.S. farms is organic, hardly worth the fuss and expense to the rest of the food industry to make changes in how food is grown.
Buying organic is especially important when it comes to baby foods.
There seems to be an on- going label war on the jars of commercial baby food: “no salt,” “no sugar,” and “no preservatives,” yet an important “no” is missing from the popular brands – no pesticides. Manufacturers claim that they have reduced pesticides far below the legal limit, and that’s commendable, but not enough. Don’t accept what’s legal as being safe for yourself or your children. It makes no sense to eat cheap foods when you’re young and pay high prices for medical problems when you’re older. That’s a bad investment. But isn’t organic food so much more expensive? you may wonder. It depends upon what you mean by expensive. Yes, organic food costs more, primarily because the demand is so much less than for chemically-treated food. Yet in the long run, it’s a great bargain. Suppose someone were to tell you that for a couple bucks extra a day you could lower your child’s risk of getting cancer, losing a few brain cells, and maybe even living to see his own great grandchildren. Think of the extra expense as just a bit more health insurance.
Imported produce may contain more pesticides than domestically grown food and may also contain pesticides that are banned from use in the U.S. American chemical manufacturers export pesticides that can not be used in this country, but the laws don’t protect us if the toxic stuff comes back to U.S. markets in imported produce. Interrupt the “circle of poison.” Require your supermarket to label produce with its country of origin and buy only U.S.- grown food.
Wash, scrub, and peel.
Studies have shown that washing fruits and vegetables in a dilute solution of water and dish detergent (1/4 teaspoon to 1 pint of water) can remove most of the surface pesticides, even though it can’t remove the pesticide residues that remain inside the produce. Peeling fruits and vegetables also removes some of the pesticide residue, but much of the fiber.
Grow your own.
If you really want to eat produce you can trust, plant your own garden.
If you and your children eat a variety of foods, you lower the risk of overdosing on foods that are raised with lots of chemicals. This nutritional trick is especially important for children who tend to eat only a few kinds of food over several days. Children who happen to binge on a bad bunch of produce could be exposed to a higher dose of pesticides.
While we urge you to buy organic foods whenever possible, the fear of pesticides should not keep you from serving lots of fruits and vegetables to your family, even if they are non-organic.
We hope that the information about organic food will motivate you to keep the momentum of the healthy food chain going. Putting pesticide-free food into your mouth is one of the best long- term investments you can make in your health.
Dr. Sears, or Dr. Bill as his “little patients” call him, has been advising busy parents on how to raise healthier families for over 40 years. He received his medical training at Harvard Medical School’s Children’s Hospital in Boston and The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, the world’s largest children’s hospital, where he was associate ward chief of the newborn intensive care unit before serving as the chief of pediatrics at Toronto Western Hospital, a teaching hospital of the University of Toronto. He has served as a professor of pediatrics at the University of Toronto, University of South Carolina, University of Southern California School of Medicine, and University of California: Irvine. As a father of 8 children, he coached Little League sports for 20 years, and together with his wife Martha has written more than 40 best-selling books and countless articles on nutrition, parenting, and healthy aging. He serves as a health consultant for magazines, TV, radio and other media, and his AskDrSears.com website is one of the most popular health and parenting sites. Dr. Sears has appeared on over 100 television programs, including 20/20, Good Morning America, Oprah, Today, The View, and Dr. Phil, and was featured on the cover of TIME Magazine in May 2012. He is noted for his science-made-simple-and-fun approach to family health.