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EWG’s 2013 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides Coming Soon

Friday, March 22, 2013


The label on the pack of Dr. Batty’s “Asthma Cigarettes” claimed that it “effectively treats asthma, hay fever, foul breath, all diseases of the throat, head colds, canker soars and bronchial irritations.”

Of course, that was many decades ago. Now cigarettes come with strong warnings about the serious risks of smoking.  

Smoking tobacco is one example of something that was once thought safe, but later proved to be anything but. 

Some pesticides once applied to certain foods fall into this category, too. Dozens of them have been banned or phased out after scientific studies showed that even tiny amounts presented unacceptable risks to human health and the environment. That means American families consumed these toxic substances along with their food for years.  

In 1996, Congress passed the Food Quality Protection Act that for the first time required the federal Environmental Protection Agency to implement a safety standard of “reasonable certainty of no harm” for all pesticides intended for use on food. This law mandated EPA to give special consideration to risks posed to infants and young children.

The law forced EPA to review pesticide “tolerances,” defined as amounts agriculture operations can legally apply to crops.  The agency tightened or removed some tolerances as scientists showed them to be unsafe.   

This brings me to the crux of my argument. The Alliance for Food and Farming – the public relations arm of conventional agriculture charged with defending the use of toxic crop chemicals – always claims that consuming poisonous pesticides is safe because the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s annual pesticide residue tests usually show the amounts detected are below the EPA’s tolerance limits.

True.  But we don’t know what we will know in, say, five or 10 years.  Many pesticides EPA once considered safe would later turn out to be very risky. Regulators would restrict or ban them outright, and manufacturers have voluntarily discontinued production. The same may hold true for some of the pesticides the USDA found in its latest round of residue tests of produce, made public earlier this year. 

Case in point: Two highly toxic pesticides that USDA scientists frequently find on green beans are being restricted over potential risks to human health.  Starting this month, methamidiphos and acephate are no longer permitted on domestic green beans under an agreement between the pesticide industry and EPA.

This is precisely why Environmental Working Group produces its annual Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce.  The guide is a list of fruits and vegetables with the highest and lowest numbers of pesticides discovered by the USDA testing program. Just because EPA considers certain pesticides to be safe today doesn’t mean the agency will always take that position.

Neither EPA nor the agribusiness industry conducts any research on possible health risks from dietary exposures to a combination of pesticides.  Even after USDA testers had thoroughly washed the produce they tested, many fruits and vegetables -- notably apples, strawberries, bell peppers and celery -- still tested positive for multiple bug and weed killers.  What does consuming a mystery cocktail of weed-and bug-killers mean for your health?  Nobody knows for sure, and that’s not a good thing.

EWG plans to publish the 2013 Shopper’s Guide soon.  People who want to avoid those fruits and veggies that carry the highest numbers of pesticides can use it to decide if they want to buy the organic versions of those items.

Because you never know what future science will discover and what action EPA and industry will take regarding those pesticides millions of Americans are eating today.



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