I will preface this by saying I cannot tell you what to believe nor how to eat; one must review the facts, choose what they accept, and move forward from there. When reviewing “facts” and information on the dangers of pesticides, it is hard to find unbiased information and most official studies on the health effects of pesticides focus on occupational exposure and rarely delineate between direct contact, limited exposure, and ingestion.
Pesticides are often applied to fruits, vegetables, wheat, rice, olives and canola which are pressed into oils, as a means of controlling insects, weeds, and infections. The use of pesticides have had a direct impact on the increase of crop yields in modern farming by up to 8 percent since the 1940s (Spectacular Increases in Crop Yields in the United States in the Twentieth Century, G.F. Warren 1998). They have also been directly linked to health issues such as cancer, neurodevelopmental issues, hormone disruption, neurological issues and diseases, and skin, eye and lung issues – again, most of these adverse health issues linked to pesticides are found in those that are occupationally exposed.
Currently, safety limits for the amount of pesticides that are allowed in our food are set by the US Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration. In order to determine what constitutes safe levels of a specific pesticide, they use information from testing on levels in people who were accidentally exposed to too much pesticide, animal testing and studying long-term health of people who use pesticides in their jobs. The data collected is then used to determine a threshold for exposure that is considered safe for consumption. Under the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA), the EPA is tasked in ensuring that all pesticides used on food in the US meet FQPA’s stringent safety standard – this often includes an additional protective factor of tenfold to ensure that children can safely consume the food.
Despite stringent regulation on the amount of pesticides found in our food, many individuals feel they are dangerous with a top argument being that most pesticides contain heavy metals that can build up in the body over time and cause adverse health effects. Another area of concern is human error – there are rare instances when individual farmers have applied a pesticide incorrectly causing outbreaks of illnesses directly linked to pesticides.
So an obvious answer would be to eat organic, right? Not necessarily! The dangers associated with pesticides mentioned above do not refer only to synthetic pesticides! In fact, organic pesticides have been shown to contain higher levels of biopesticides that have had negative impacts on the environment at higher rates than synthetic. Additionally, synthetic pesticides are more highly regulated than organic pesticides. In both types of pesticides, though, it has become widely accepted that the pesticide levels in produce are many times below the lowest levels known to cause harm to humans and animals. It should also be stressed that scientific evidence has proven that eating a lot of fruits and vegetables has more health benefits and highly outweighs the potential negative impact of the pesticides consumed.
The verdict? It’s up to you to decide! Whether you are concerned about consuming small amounts of pesticides or not, it is a good practice to rinse your produce before consuming it. Even using a vegetable brush to scrub away any residue, if the produce is treated with a wax coating, consider peeling it and discarding the skin prior to consuming. It’s up to you to determine the level of risk you are willing to take and to choose your food accordingly!