The Pesticide Data Program (PDP) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture monitors residual commercial pesticides on produce grown in the United States and maintains a comprehensive and extensive database. The PDP makes its data available for governmental agencies and consumers to assess dietary exposure to pesticide chemicals, facilitating informed decision-making. (1)
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a non-profit consumer watchdog and advocacy organization that publishes annually its “Dirty 12” and “Clean 15” lists of commercially-sold produce and those found with the most and least residual pesticides (respectively) based on PDP data.
If you’re wondering why such grand organizations put in so much time and effort toward monitoring pesticides in food, consider that these chemicals have been linked to serious health hazards, including neurological disorders, diabetes, cancer, allergies, endocrine disorders, and reproductive dysfunction.
Use of Pesticides in U.S. Agriculture
With the promotion of high yield at lowest cost, the use of pesticides on produce grown in the U.S. continues to rise. (2) Farmers want to minimize crop loss due to pests in all forms. Organisms targeted by “pesticides” include fungi, insects, and invasive plants. The problem with synthetic pesticides is that they not only kill unwanted organisms but are laden with substances potentially toxic to humans, especially as their effects are cumulative. In fact, certain chemicals (such as the prevalent glyphosate) have been the focus of a significant body of research that has determined a host of ill effects caused by their widespread use.
Virtually all conventionally-grown cash crops in the U.S. use synthetic pesticides. To put things in perspective, application of chemical pesticides is in the hundreds of millions of pounds per crop every year. (3)
You might think that by thoroughly washing your food, you’re safe from the chemicals used in its raising. Not so. Plants will absorb what is sprayed on them or mixed with the soil in which they’re grown, so pesticides are actually part of much of the food you eat if it’s not organic.
How to Clean Your Fruits and Vegetables
EWG’s Dirty 12 (also known as “The Dirty Dozen”) can be found here. It’s recommended that if you buy the produce items on this list, you stick to organic to avoid the commercial chemicals. Conventionally-grown items on its Clean 15, however, can be safe to eat if you wash them properly to remove any lingering pesticides—you can find this year’s list here.
Research published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry in 2017 compared the effectiveness of three common household products for removing potentially harmful pesticides from apples (inside and out), a fruit with the ignominious distinction of consistently making the Dirty Dozen. After twenty-four hours of exposure to two commonly-used pesticides, it was found that the chemicals penetrated the skin into the flesh of the apples. The three substances tested for cleaning the chemicals from the fruits were chlorine bleach, tap water, and baking soda (sodium bicarbonate).
First of all, using bleach—a known toxin—for cleaning fruit is a bad idea; even if it worked at removing the pesticide, you’d be eating bleach. Yuck. You can dismiss this solution entirely because after washing the treated apples with bleach, examination revealed that some pesticide residue remained on the skin. Tap water did not have a significant effect at removing the chemicals.
The most effective method for cleaning pesticides from the apples was (the always amazing) baking soda: mixing ten milligrams of sodium bicarbonate with one milliliter of water and washing for twelve to fifteen minutes completely removed the chemicals from the skins of the fruits. It should be noted that none of the three substances tested had any effect on the pesticide contamination in the flesh of the apples. (4)
How to Avoid Pesticides in Your Food
The best ways to avoid pesticide contamination in your foods:
- buy organic – people buy organic produce for several reasons, not the least of which is the absence of synthetic and potentially toxic pesticides; use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides is prohibited for a certified organic distinction
- consult the Clean 15 for the safest conventionally-grown produce and wash it thoroughly with (aluminum-free) baking soda and water (one tablespoon of baking soda dissolved in a quart and a half of water)
- grow your own vegetables, berries, herbs, and fruits from organic plants or seeds and make your own natural pest control applications, if needed – you can find recipes here.