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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 the 2023 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, researchers analyzed test data on 46,569 samples of 46 fruits and vegetables conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Each year, a rotating list of produce is tested by USDA employees who wash, peel or scrub fruits and vegetables as consumers would before the food is examined for 251 different pesticides.
Dirty Dozen 2023
2023 Dirty Dozen (most to least polluted)
As of 2022, strawberries and spinach continued to hold the top two spots on the Dirty Dozen, followed by three greens — kale, collards and mustard. Next listed were peaches, pears, nectarines, apples, grapes, bell and peppers and cherries. Blueberries and green beans were number 11 and 12 on the list.
A total of 210 pesticides were found on the 12 foods, the report states. Kale, collards and mustard greens contained the greatest number of different pesticides – 103 types – followed by peppers and bell peppers with 101.
“Some of the USDA’s tests show traces of pesticides long banned by the Environmental Protection Agency. Much stricter federal regulation and oversight of these chemicals is needed,” the report says.
“Pesticides are toxic by design,” said Jane Houlihan, former senior vice president of research for EWG. She was not involved in the report.
“They are intended to harm living organisms, and this inherent toxicity has implications for children’s health, including potential risk of hormone dysfunction, cancer, and damage to the developing brain and nervous system,” said Houlihan, who is now director of research for Healthy Babies. , Bright Futures, an organization dedicated to reducing babies’ exposure to neurotoxic chemicals.
However, there is good news. Concerned consumers may consider choosing conventionally grown vegetables and fruits from EWG’s Clean 15, a list of crops that tested lowest in pesticides, the report said. Almost 65% of the foods on the list had no detectable levels of the pesticide.
2023 Cleaning 15
2023 Clean 15 (least to most polluted)
Avocados again topped the list of least contaminated products in 2023, followed by sweet corn in second place. Pineapple, onion and papaya, frozen sweet peas, asparagus, honeydew melon, kiwi, cabbage, mushrooms, mango, sweet potato, watermelon and carrots made up the rest of the list.
Exposure to a variety of pesticide-free foods is especially important during pregnancy and throughout childhood, experts say. Developing children need the combined nutrients, but are also more severely affected by pollutants such as pesticides.
“Pesticide exposure during pregnancy may lead to an increased risk of birth defects, low birth weight, and fetal death,” noted the American Academy of Pediatrics. “Childhood exposure has been linked to attention and learning problems as well as cancer.”
The AAP suggests 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, agreed: “Any choice to reduce pesticides in the diet is a good choice for a child.”
Nearly 90% of samples of blueberries and green beans had concerning findings, the report said.
In 2016, the last time green beans were inspected, samples contained 51 different pesticides, according to the report. The latest round of testing found 84 different pesticides, and 6% of the samples tested positive for acephate, an insecticide banned from use on vegetables in 2011 by the EPA.
“A sample of non-organic green beans had acephate at a level 500 times greater than the limit set by the EPA,” said Alexis Temkin, a toxicologist at EWG with expertise in toxic chemicals and pesticides.
Last tested in 2014, blueberries contained over 50 different pesticides. Tests in 2020 and 2021 found 54 different pesticides – about the same amount. Two insecticides, phosmet and malathion, were found on nearly 10% of blueberry samples, although levels declined over the past decade.
Acephate, phosmet and malathion are organophosphates that interfere with the normal functioning of the nervous system, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A high dose of these chemicals can cause difficulty breathing, nausea, lower heart rate, vomiting, weakness, paralysis and seizures, the CDC said. If exposed to small amounts over a long period of time, people “may feel tired or weak, irritable, depressed or forgetful.”
Why would the levels of some pesticides be higher today than in the past?
“We’re seeing declines in some pesticides since the early ’90s, when the Food Quality Protection Act was put in place,” Temkin said. “But we’re also seeing increases in other pesticides that have been substituted in their place, which may not be safer. That’s why there’s a push toward an overall reduction in pesticide use.”
Chris Novak, president and CEO of CropLife America, a trade association, told CNN that the report “intentionally misrepresented” the USDA data.
“Farmers use pesticides to control insects and fungal diseases that threaten the health and safety of fruits and vegetables,” Novak said via email. “Misinformation about pesticides and different growing methods creates hesitation and confusion, resulting in many consumers choosing to skip fresh produce altogether.”
The Institute of Food Technologists, a trade association, told CNN that emphasis should be placed on meeting the legal limits of pesticides established by significant scientific consensus.
“We all agree that the best possible scenario for pesticide residues would be as close to zero as possible, and there should be continued science-based efforts to further reduce pesticide residues,” said Bryan Hitchcock, IFT’s Chief Science and Technology Officer.
Many fruits and vegetables with higher levels of pesticides are essential to a balanced diet, so don’t give them up, experts say. Instead, avoid most pesticides by choosing to eat organic versions of the most contaminated crops. While organic foods are not more nutritious, the majority have little or no pesticide residue, Temkin said.
“If a person switches to an organic diet, the level of pesticides in their urine drops rapidly,” Temkin told CNN. “We see it time and time again.”
If organic isn’t available or too expensive, “I would definitely recommend peeling and washing thoroughly with water,” Temkin said. “Steer away from cleaning products or other advertised items. Rinsing with water will reduce pesticide levels.”
Additional tips on washing produce, provided by the US Food and Drug Administration, include:
- Hand wash with warm water and soap for 20 seconds before and after preparing fresh ingredients.
- Rinse produce before peeling so that dirt and bacteria are not transferred from the knife to the fruit or vegetables.
- Use a clean vegetable brush to scrub firm produce such as apples and melons.
- Dry the product with a clean cloth or paper towel to further reduce any bacteria that may be present.