Food, science

Chemophobia: Pesticides

There is a lot of misconception about the presence of pesticide residue on and in foods. I see it frequently, and I was curious to see how based it was in reality. I’ll readily admit that I maintain a high level of skepticism when I see claims from certain quarters – anything coming out of a celebrity’s mouth, for instance, is going to have me reaching for another source to verify that. So when I see the constant refrain of pesticides are The Evul! particularly when coupled with organic foods are safer… I’ve written up organic food here before, and had commenter responses to studies showing no nutritional benefit to eating organic food: ‘Oh, but they have less pesticide contamination!’ No. Not really. Different pesticides, definitely. But without pesticides enabling the production of a high enough yield to make a profit (and, oh, yes, Organic Producers are all about making a profit, the higher the better, how else to you explain 177% markups?) and keep their wares pretty enough to appeal to the average consumer, there’s not a lot of point. So yes, even the organic marketing hides pesticide use behind it’s green façade. And we won’t get into the microbial contamination…

So if you were worried, here’s a big reason you shouldn’t be. Not only can you easily wash off any potential reside – really, it doesn’t soak into fruits and veggies. That’s not how it works! Pesticides don’t work on humans. Humans and arthropods operate on different physiological patterns, and what will kill a bug can pass through you harmlessly. For that matter, the bug can and will eat something that would kill you. Can you feed a dog chocolate safely? Would you risk it? The mechanism that kills bugs and microbes is carefully selected in commercial pesticides to be as close to harmless as possible. Farmers are not in the business of killing their customers.

Also, to make sure that the levels of pesticides, particularly in foods consumed by children and infants, stay at safe levels, the USDA tests thousands of samples every year and produce a mass of data in the PDP (Pesticide Data Program). They collect from stores, at farms, and in all manner of locations. Then they rinse the fresh samples (fruit, vegetables) simply with water, prior to testing, just as you would do.

Fresh and processed fruit and vegetables accounted for 90.3 percent of the total 10,365 samples collected in 2016. Other samples collected included eggs (2.8 percent) and milk (6.8 percent). Fresh and processed fruit and vegetables tested during 2016 were: apples, applesauce, cherries (fresh and frozen), cranberries (fresh and frozen), cucumbers, grapefruit, grapes, green beans, lettuce, olives (canned), oranges, pears, potatoes, spinach, strawberries, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes (fresh and canned). Domestic samples accounted for 81.2 percent of the samples while 18.3 percent were imports, and 0.5 percent were of unknown origin.

And the results? Well, the EPA sets up the acceptable levels of pesticides for food. Those levels are very low, in order to keep our food safe. They are also looking at the amount of pesticides in water and soil, not just foodstuffs. They also test even for pesticides that are not currently used here in the US, just in case they are lingering on in the soil, or some imported food might have an unacceptable compound on it.

EPA establishes the tolerances after developing a risk assessment that considers the following: the pesticide exposure through diet and drinking water and from uses in and around the home; the cumulative exposure to two or more pesticides that cause a common toxic effect; the possibility of increased susceptibility to infants and children or other sensitive subpopulations from exposure to the pesticide; and the possibility that the pesticide produces an effect in people similar to an effect produced by a naturally occurring estrogen or produces other endocrine disruptions.

 And the testing the USDA does? Shows that 99% of the samples had ‘levels well below’ those mandated by the EPA. And nearly  a quarter of the samples simply had no detectable residue at all. Less than one half of one percent – only 48 samples out of those 10,365! – showed an elevated level of resides, and those were split about half into domestic products, and half imported. So if you rinse your food you can eat with confidence that you are not consuming an unsafe amount of pesticides. More than likely, you’re not going to have to worry, ever, about pesticides in your food.

And it’s not like you are consuming a lot of different pesticides on each kind of food, either. The majority of samples tested showed either no pesticide at all, or a single kind.

You can see that the samples with multiple resides are vastly less likely.

There are studies that appear in places like Consumer Reports that purport to use the PDP data I’ve been quoting from and using above to make my point for safety. Only they tend to focus on the negative. Which isn’t so horrible, except that they are not presenting the data clearly and accurately. In fact, they are doing their best to twist it around and make it say things it doesn’t mean – because alarmed consumers buy magazines and click on articles.

This is much like what farmers have been experiencing for years. They grow a crop as best they can, and use pesticides only as necessary and within the strict rules established by the EPA. Much of what they use are pesticides with very low toxicity.  In years that their crop is selected for the PDP, random samples of their commodity are purchased in stores, including examples coming from other countries.  

They are taken to federal and state laboratories and scrutinized for trace residues of hundreds of different chemical pesticides. When the data is finally published (usually two years later), the highly qualified experts of the USDA, EPA and FDA conclude that the system is working and that consumers should confidently purchase and eat the crop without concerns about residues.  In fact, studies show that the anti-cancer benefits of eating things like fruits and vegetable far, far outweigh and minuscule risk associated with pesticides.

And the scientists assessed the PDP data as well. They weren’t very happy with the ‘conclusion’ of the mass-media sensationalist presentation, as you can see here:

It is concluded that (1) exposures to the most commonly detected pesticides on the twelve commodities pose negligible risks to consumers, (2) substitution of organic forms of the twelve commodities for conventional forms does not result in any appreciable reduction of consumer risks, and (3) the methodology used by the environmental advocacy group to rank commodities with respect to pesticide risks lacks scientific credibility.

The EPA spends a lot of taxpayer time and money on establishing the tolerances for potentially harmful chemicals. A new pesticide can potentially take a decade of testing before they are satisfied in it’s safety and will allow it to be used on crops.

These tolerances are very conservative limits and represent such small amounts that they can be difficult to envision. For instance, a tolerance might be five (5) parts per million. That can be visualized as to two drops of water in a five (5) gallon carboy. Some tolerances are set as low as one part per billion (e.g. one drop in 528 carboys). In summary, tolerances are extremely small levels of pesticide residue, set as a conservative standard for human safety, and customized to the specific properties of the each chemical.

The long story short: Eat your fruits and veggies. They’re good for you! If you can’t afford the vanity tax that is ‘organic produce’ then no worries, you can safely choose the cheaper and more diverse options without worrying over possible chemical contamination.

50 thoughts on “Chemophobia: Pesticides

  1. Nice clear article suitable for passing on to my idiot offspring, who throw around words like “organic”, “natural”, and “chemicals” as if they were discussing theological issues. Come to think of it, in a way they are; their faith certainly isn’t buttressed by proof.

      1. Yeah, those Puritan originated beliefs are reversions back to Jewish dietary laws in a pseudo-Scriptural sort of way.

  2. What you said, about pure and natural eating, has been tied in with all the varieties of spiritualism, pseudo-druidic and wiccan movements.

    Pesticides. What allows us to survive today with as little farm land per person being harvested. That and GMO food, of course (oooh, scary GMO foooooood, Boo!)

    As to ‘organic’, well Benzene and Cyanide are organic, according to my Organic Chemistry teacher.

  3. The Seventh-Day Adventists are also big on food purity. They took the kosher rules and turned them up to 11. The Kellogg family and their weird obsession with fiber was inspired, in part, by being Adventist. Being vegetarian is tied to Grace. Being vegan even moreso.

    My wife’s an Adventist, but not a foodie. Keeping kosher is required, but all the veganism and dietary religious dogma is not, but is encouraged. I have experienced having 4 pieces of bacon in the pan and then coming back from the pantry to find one missing on many occasions. I’m pretty sure it’s not ‘a seagull got in for a minute but he’s gone now.’

    One thing I have certainly learned is that disparaging the Most Holy Catheral of St. Whole Foods is a mortal sin with the food as religion folks.

    I’m pretty sure it’s not ‘a seagull got in for a minute but he’s gone now.’

    1. There’s a pretty wide range in dietary practice even amongst the Adventists. The West Coasters (and, I’m guessing, the East Coasters) are different to the mid-Westerners and Southerners, at least in degree. The little old ladies (seriously) at our current church who are out every year on opening day of deer season would horrify some of the LOL’s back in California. Heh.

      For that matter, my wife/daughter who’ve gone full keto (in my wife’s case after being vegan/vegetarian for more than 40 years) do somewhat creep out some of their oldest friends on that. But they both choose to follow the data, and are benefitting therefrom. What works for one person may not work for another (don’t dose my son-in-law with any sulfa drugs; we want him around for the foreseeable future); makes for interesting dinner conversation sometimes.

      Meanwhile, I need to get the ribeyes on for lunch; she’ll be disappointed if I forget. Or are a little late. (We still don’t go for the non-kosherish items, though.)

  4. One of my late father’s favorite remarks – usually delivered in a snarl – was “Everything’s organic!” The additional words “You numbskull!” was usually implied.
    Sigh. I miss Dad. He was my best Alpha reader. Professional research biologist, shade-tree mechanic, and purveyor of the best nature walks ever.

  5. My favorite pesticides are found in plants like mint, oregano, thyme, rosemary, etc. In fact, a lot of the chemicals we add to food for the taste evolved to kill or repel pests.

  6. And there is that matter of farming being a business, and like any business expenses (such as pesticides – they ain’t free!) are to be minimized. It’s “Let’s soak the works in $PESTICIDE” but “I need how much? Damn, that’s gonna cost me $X.”

    1. *grumble* Missed a critical word there….

      It’s NOT “Let’s soak the works in $PESTICIDE” but “I need how much? Damn, that’s gonna cost me $X.”

  7. Also, Dear $BROWSER, when I say ‘reload’ I darn well MEAN *reload* and not ‘show me ten minutes ago as if nothing changed.’

  8. Every thing is also a chemical made up of atoms, elements, molecules, etc. Including the bodies of the folks that don’t eat Chemicals. It makes me chuckle or growl, depending.

  9. and now they are saying roundup is a carcinogen and starting class action lawsuits… is it like most of the carcinogens they are finding, where you’d need to drink five gallons of it a day to get cancer?

  10. I dont disagree with the general premise, but your faith in the EPA and USDA is seriously misguided. They really have no idea what they are doing, and the ‘safe’ limits on pesticide or other chemical residues in food stuffs is guesswork at best. The populace at large is an ongoing chemistry experiment and longterm exposure history is what drives the current limits. Basically, enough people and indusrtial workers need to develop issues, then we learn what to limit in our food. Screening tests do trim out the worst of the worst, but biological systems are so complex, that indirect complications are impossible to predict.
    I am an industrial chemist by trade and while i dont fret over routine exposures, it is a very good idea to limit artificial chemistries whereever possible….particularly new ones. For instance, glyphosate has been around for so long that we have extensive exposure history on it….which makes the claims of carcinogicity largely bunk.
    Bigger things to worry about are processed foods and artificial sweeteners. The quantities are vastly higher than pesticide residues and we really dont know that much about longterm consequences.
    But one point of fact… pesticides do not wash off easy. They are intended to withstand some degree of rain n plants, so a simple rinse does almost nothing to clean your fruits and vegetables. A bit of soap and water for hard surface items that can be hand bell peppers or mangoes. Vinegar water rinse for others, like grapes or berries is always a good idea. Both for bacteria and chemical contamination.
    And some organic goods, like raspberries which are very difficult to wash is not a bad idea. Or ideallt, grow your own…its easy.

    1. Organic produce is far more likely to harbor microbial growth, and frankly between pathogens and chemicals I’ll take my chances with the chemicals.

      I’m not sure where you came up with guesswork: pesticides are tested extensively before the limits are set up. Do I trust the FDA et al implicitly? Not necessarily. I do work in an FDA regulated lab, and know what standards the FDA upholds, which are high. From a quality perspective having over watch keeps businesses responsible, and in this case, random testing for pesticides keeps them honest. I’m not a fan of conspiracy theories that involve calling hardworking folks liars just because they work for our government. Yes, bureaucratic systems are deeply flawed. Science and scientists are doing their best to keep our food safe…

      1. “universal solvent”. Try washing off you dishes with just water and you will learn that that designation is meant for high school chemistry, not practical usage. If water can’t remove oil from a pan, why do you think it can remove a hydrophobic pesticide from the outside of a bell pepper? Look up ‘surface tension’ and understand what water can and can’t do.

        I never discuss conspiracy theories and I never called anyone a liar. I attempted to share some information from a lifetime as a practicing chemist, but alas that apparently is unappreciated. And no, the FDA and USDA really have no idea what they are doing relative to chemical exposures in our foodstuffs. That is not their job. All they do is test for content, and they do almost nothing on impact. And the EPA… Why don’t you explain how they test chemical products in our food? It’s certainly not human testing. That would be illegal. Do they do animal testing? I know there is some, but you do realize that these are single-point tests, usually for mutagenicity, sensitization, or irritation/corrosivity. So what test indicates endocrine mimicry or impacts on the microbiome we all maintain in our digestive system. Do they test for insulin response, hormone disruption, or even arterial inflammation? Heck, these agencies can’t even agree how much salt we should intake.
        You cite articles you apparently don’t understand, and then demean commenters that provide some alternative perspectives.
        Good luck with that.

        1. I also am a practicing chemist, with microbiology experience and background. So yes, I do cite articles I understand. And I very much understand that biochemistry is deeply complex and poorly understood even with the advances we have had. However, I do not think that a sweeping indictment of the agencies tasked with food safety is necessary. We are studying the effects of pesticides on humans. You and I could play dueling citations here – and that might be fun. But no, I do not think that the level of pesticides on our food is dangerous. And yes, water alone is sufficient, in most cases. If you look at the PDP I was quoting from, that’s what they used prior to sampling. And what, you’re going to possibly not wash off hydrophobic compounds with water alone. However, the levels are still low enough to not be a concern in the vast majority of cases.

  11. So how do you explain the fact that my allergies disappear when I stick to a certified organic diet? My wife and I have been eating out a lot recently, and my allergies are acting up again.

    1. As stated in the article, Organic growers also use pesticides. So it’s not that. Sounds like you’ve inadvertently been on an exclusion diet, and now that you’re adding things back in, there’s where the allergens are.

      1. Been there done that. Not much help. I still maintain that the second most life changing book I have ever read is “The 100 Year Lie.” Your article was interesting, and I’m always open too hearing others’ opinions, but I still know that I feel better when I stick to organic.

        1. And how you feel is perhaps most important to your health. When it comes to the health of the general public, however, I’ll stick to large scale studies with proper controls and blinds in place.

    2. It’s quite possible that your issues are not related to organic/non-organic fruits & vegetables, but to other additives found in processed foods (which are surely found in restaurant food as well). Benefits of going all organic on your fresh fruits & veggies are minimal (at best); keeping tabs on the additive ingredients in the other foods you eat is worth the effort.

  12. As a licensed applicator of pesticides for many years let me assure you many are highly toxic for humans. Those commonly used on foodstuffs are selected for safer performance and washing is sufficient to assure safety. the blanket statement that pesticides will not effect humans is inaccurate.

    1. affect, not effect. At the level you are applying them at, you must wear PPE and take appropriate precautions. At the level of residue that makes it to the stores? No, they are not harmful to humans. The dose makes the poison – many things we consume in daily life would be toxic in sufficient dosage.

    2. I too am an applicator, and I also thought cedar was perhaps a bit too cavalier with the “pesticides are harmless” bit. I agree with the overall point. Strongly, in fact. I just caution against being too dismissive of ANY possible risk. Some pesticides DO have a mode of action that affects people as well as pests. And some careless applicators do apply pesticides incorrectly (rarely, thankfully). Nevertheless, the overall gist of this piece is spot on. Organic food is essentially a con, and the great irony is that it is actually Worse for the environment, and statistically more dangerous than conventional food. Yet, gullible consumers buy it for precisely the opposite reasons.

        1. Just as I tire of the pro-GMO, anti-organic propaganda. There’s two sides to every story, and people have different opinions, but once we start throwing around terms like idiot, fool, gullible, and propaganda, then no one is really listening anymore

          1. As I’m sure Cedar is going to tell you momentarily, in this case, the ‘two sides to every story’ is irrelevant because this is a case of – there is an actual truth to the matter, and teh feelz are irrelevant.

  13. Good article. I would also like to point out that because pesticides cost money, farmers make more profit by using only enough to be effective. It is true, however, that farm workers may be exposed in a different way than consumers, so proper safety procedures are well justified for those working with the chemicals.
    Another red flag for hysteria is lumping herbicides together with pesticides. This is a favorite ploy of GMO alarmists.

    1. In general, pesticide refers to both herbicides and insecticides. And yes, there’s no point to indulge in overuse of pesticides, or for that matter fertilizers. Shit’s expensive, to use a appropriately vulgar phrase, and farmers are already having financial difficulties.

  14. The point needs to be made more strongly that almost all plants are chock full of “natural” pesticides, which when tested as we test for man-made chemicals, are every bit as carcinogenic and mutagenic. They are plants’ only defense against being eaten. And these pesticides can’t be washed off.

    There have been several cases of breeding food plants so that pesticides don’t need to be applied. But then they discover they are so full of natural toxins that they make people sick.

  15. Bruce Ames, who developed the Ames Mutagenicity Test for potentially harmful compounds, has pointed out that with simple crossbreeding, the natural defenses of celery can be boosted to the point where it will give humans a rash. For pointing out that there are “organic” and “natural” compounds that are every bit as dangerous to humans as the synthetic chemicals we are warned about, Ames was hounded out of the environmental movement. There are many organic cyanide compounds found in nature.

  16. Cedar, the pesticides aren’t just on the surface of the vegetable/fruit, they are IN ITS CELLS! You can’t wash out those dangerous chemicals from their cells! As an experiment, put a stalk of celery in a glass of water so that half of the celery is above the level of the water. Now, put some food coloring in the water. You will find that the coloring will spread to the entire celery, even to the part that is above the water. Then, remove the celery from the glass of water and try to wash out the color. You won’t be able to do it. The same thing happens with pesticides/herbicides. They are IN the produce!

    So, no thank you, I will continue to eat organic and will eschew pesticide-laden foods. BTW, you must have seem the studies that sperm counts in males of ALL species are about 50% of what they were a century ago? (I wonder how they measure that in tiny insects?) I believe it is due to being bombarded with pesticides everywhere we go. Many of those pesticides are endocrine disruptors. Also, the rate of cancer has been increasing about 1% per year since the world started using chemical farming after World War II. Coincidence? No way in Hell it’s a coincidence!

    Also, you can cite all the studies you want that show pesticides/herbicides are safe, but I learned a long time ago that when you know who funded a study, you know what the study will say without even having to read it. (Like when tobacco companies funded studies that showed that cigarettes were perfectly safe.) Even so-called “neutral” agricultural colleges will produce tainted stufies due to their taking millions of dollars from Monsanto, et al.

    Organic farming (of which I am an organic farmer) does NOT use harsh chemicals. We do things like actually pull/hoe weeds instead of poisoning them (which also poisons the plant you’re trying to grow). I also use cayenne powder dusted on leaves to keep some bugs away. But never chemicals!


  17. I see there has been a.. spirited.. exchange, perhaps ongoing.

    So far, so… good?

    But if any party starts muttering or mumbling “I’ll show them! I’ll show them all.” I’m going back into that labyrinth… for a long, long time. Somehow, when that gets said, it always seems to end in pitchforks and torches… at least back when. Ending in radionuclides is presumably even less desirable.

    1. Do you realize that you’re tempting someone to say exactly that?

      As for me, I’m past 50. I made it that far, by being cautious. From here on out, I’m having fun. If it’s all downhill from here, well… got a skateboard?

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