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.
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.