Blueberries, beloved by nutritionists for their anti-inflammatory properties, have joined fiber-rich green beans in this year's Dirty Dozen of non-organic produce with the most pesticides, according to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit environmental health organization.
In Buyers' Guide to Pesticides in Products 2023, researchers analyzed test data on 46,569 samples of 46 fruits and vegetables conducted by the US Department of Agriculture. Each year, a rotating list of produce is tested by USDA staff who wash, peel, or scrub fruit and vegetables as consumers would before the food is inspected for 251 different pesticides.
As in 2022, strawberries and spinach continue to occupy the top two spots on the Dirty Dozen, followed by three greens — kale, collards and mustard. Listed next are peaches, pears, nectarines, apples, grapes, peppers, and cherries. Blueberries and green beans are 11th and 12th on the list.
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A total of 210 pesticides were found in the 12 foods, the report said. Kale, collards, and mustard greens contain the greatest amounts of various pesticides — 103 types — followed by chilies and peppers at 101.
“Several USDA tests showed traces of a pesticide long banned by the Environmental Protection Agency. Stronger federal regulation and oversight of these chemicals is needed,” the report said.
“Pesticides are designed to be toxic,” says Jane Houlihan, former senior vice president of research at EWG. He was not involved in the report.
“They are meant to harm living organisms, and this inherent toxicity has implications for children's health, including potential risks of hormone dysfunction, cancer, and damage to the developing brain and nervous system,” said Houlihan, who is now research director for Healthy Babies. , Bright Futures, an organization dedicated to reducing babies' exposure to neurotoxic chemicals.
Option 15 clean
However, there is good news. Concerned consumers may consider selecting conventionally grown vegetables and fruits from EWG's Clean 15, the list of plants tested least for pesticides, the report says. Nearly 65% of the foods on the list had no detectable levels of pesticides.
Avocado topped the list of 2023's least contaminated products this year, followed by sweetcorn in second place. Pineapple, red onion and papaya, frozen sweet peas, asparagus, melon, kiwi, cabbage, mushrooms, mango, sweet potato, watermelon and carrots make up the rest of the list.
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Exposure to a variety of foods without pesticides is especially important during pregnancy and during childhood, experts say. Developing children need combined nutrition but are also more difficult to be exposed to contaminants such as pesticides.
“Exposure to pesticides during pregnancy can lead to an increased risk of birth defects, low birth weight, and fetal death,” notes the American Academy of Pediatrics. “Exposure in childhood has been linked to attention and learning problems, as well as cancer.”
The AAP recommends parents and caregivers consult the shopper's guide if they are concerned about their child's exposure to pesticides.
Houlihan, director of Healthy Babies, Bright Futures, agrees: “Any option to reduce pesticides in food is a good choice for a child.”
Blueberries and green beans
Nearly 90% of blueberry and mung bean samples had alarming findings, the report said.
In 2016, the last time green beans were examined, samples contained 51 different pesticides, according to the report. The most recent round of testing found 84 different pest killers, and 6% of samples tested positive for acephate, an insecticide banned from use in vegetables in 2011 by the EPA.
“One non-organic green bean sample has acephates at levels 500 times greater than the limit set by the EPA,” said Alexis Temkin, a toxicologist at EWG with expertise in toxic chemicals and pesticides.
When they were last tested in 2014, blueberries contained more than 50 different pesticides. Tests in 2020 and 2021 found 54 different pesticides – nearly the same number. Two insecticides, phosmet and malathion, were found in nearly 10% of blueberry samples, although levels have decreased over the last decade.
Acephate, phosmet and malathion are organophosphates, which interfere with the normal functioning of the nervous system, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
High doses of this chemical can cause difficulty breathing, nausea, lower heart rate, vomiting, weakness, paralysis and seizures, the CDC says. If exposed to smaller amounts over a long period of time, people may “feel tired or weak, irritable, depressed, or forgetful”.
Why are levels of some pesticides higher now than in the past?
“We did see a decline in some pesticides since the early 90s when the Food Quality Protection Act was enacted,” says Temkin. “But we're also seeing an increase in other pesticides that have been replaced in their place that may not be safer. That's why there is a push to reduce pesticide use overall.”
Chris Novak, president and CEO of CropLife America, an industry association, told CNN the report “deliberately misrepresents” USDA data.
“Farmers use pesticides to control insect and fungal diseases that threaten the health and safety of fruit and vegetables,” Novak said by email. “Misinformation about pesticides and various growing methods creates doubt and confusion, leading many consumers to opt out of fresh produce altogether.”
The Institute of Food Technologists, an industry association, told CNN that emphasis should be placed on meeting legal pesticide limits set by significant scientific consensus.
“We all agree that the best scenario for pesticide residues is close to zero and there must be continuous science-based efforts to further reduce pesticide residues,” said Bryan Hitchcock, IFT's Chief Science and Technology Officer.
Switch sources, experts suggest
Many fruits and vegetables with higher levels of pesticides are essential for a balanced diet, so don't give up, say the experts. Instead, avoid most pesticides by choosing to eat the organic versions of the most contaminated crops. While organic foods aren't more nutritious, the majority have little pesticide residue, says Temkin.
“If a person switches to an organic diet, the levels of pesticides in their urine decrease rapidly,” Temkin told CNN. “We saw it many times.”
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If organic isn't available or too expensive, “I would definitely recommend peeling and washing thoroughly with water,” says Temkin. “Avoid detergent or other advertised items. Rinsing with water will reduce pesticide levels.”
Additional tips for washing produce, provided by the US Food and Drug Administration, include:
Wash hands with warm water and soap for 20 seconds before and after preparing fresh produce.
Rinse produce before peeling, so dirt and bacteria don't transfer from the knife to the fruit or vegetables.
Use a clean vegetable brush to scrub tough produce like apples and melons.
Dry the product with a clean cloth or paper towel to reduce any bacteria that may be present.
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