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June 14, 2011 | 3 minute read

An Apple a Day? Pesticides in the News

An apple.You may have seen headlines yesterday about fruits, vegetables and pesticide residues — headlines which have prompted serious questions in many people’s minds about the issue. Questions like:

1. Is there legitimate cause for concern here?

2. Should you avoid fresh produce out of concern for your and your family’s health?

The answers, respectively, are:

1. Yes, and

2. Emphatically no.

Some background: The consumer advocacy organization Environmental Working Group (EWG) released its annual Shoppers Guide to Pesticides in Produce. The Guide ranks pesticide contamination for many fruits and vegetables based on EWG’s analysis of tens of thousands of tests conducted by the USDA and the FDA.

The EWG’s Guide lists 12 produce items that contained the highest concentration of pesticide residues (“The Dirty Dozen” includes potatoes, spinach, peaches, strawberries, celery and — coming in at number one — apples).  EWG also ranked produce items that tested lowest in pesticides (“The Clean Fifteen” includes sweet potatoes, watermelon, mangoes, asparagus, pineapples, corn and — the cleanest of the bunch — onions).

What’s the Bottom Line?

EWG isn’t advocating avoiding produce. Their take-home message — which didn’t make it into much of the more sensationalist press coverage, alas — is very clear:

“Eat your fruits and vegetables! The health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure. Use EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides to reduce your exposures as much as possible, but eating conventionally-grown produce is far better than not eating fruits and vegetables at all.”

On this, AICR and EWG agree.  Our expert report on cancer prevention, and its updates, make clear that everyone’s priority should be on getting more vegetables and fruits into the diet — get them fresh, canned or frozen, get them organic or conventional, but get them.

If you can afford organic, and are concerned about pesticide residues — or opt for organic for other reasons such as issues of land and water use — do so. If you can’t, know that the cancer protection you’re getting from eating a variety of vegetables and fruits outweighs the potential risks associated with pesticides.

This is a notoriously difficult area to study. There is evidence linking high doses of pesticides to cancer in the laboratory, and to cancer in farm workers and others who are professionally exposed to high levels of pesticides over many years. But we still lack evidence from human studies that pesticides cause cancer at the levels they exist in US diets – a country where pesticide use is regulated.

Watch this space – we’ll know more as methods of studying this hot topic improve. In the meantime, get your vegetables and fruits however you choose to, rinse them thoroughly … and don’t shun that Red Delicious.


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