A pest is defined as an animal that is detrimental to humans or human concerns. In the U.S., we are pretty adamant about getting rid of pests. According a government website, there are over 20,000 pesticide products containing 620 active ingredients on the market. Each year, 1 billion pounds of active ingredients in conventional pesticides are applied. There are over 80,000 existing chemicals on the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) inventory and each year an additional 2,000 chemicals are added. Whew! Do you think our arsenal against pests is large enough?
Some estimates allege that of the 1.2 billion pounds of pesticides used annually in the US, less than .01% actually reach their intended targets -- the bugs. Pesticides contaminate our food and water supplies; pesticides also pose a danger to birds, wildlife and helpful insects such as honey bees. National and international government agencies acknowledge the connection to various health problems--nervous system toxicity, cancer, hormone system effects, and irritation of skin, eyes, and lungs among them.
Of course there is also the phenomenon that, like antibiotics, pesticides are having a diminishing effect on pests. According to a paper published by the Maine Environmental Policy Institute, pesticide use to control mosquitoes for West Nile virus may actually be resulting in the more mosquitoes. The findings indicate that the pesticides are destroying predators that feed on mosquito larvae and adults. Mosquitoes that are sprayed but not killed by the poisons may become resistant, become more aggressive biters, and have increased prevalence of West Nile Virus (WNV) within their bodies.
The EPA sets limits on how much of a pesticide residue can remain on food and feed products, or commodities. These pesticide residue limits are known as tolerances. Tolerances are set to protect you from harmful levels of pesticides on your food. Inspectors from the Food and Drug Administration and the United States Department of Agriculture monitor food in interstate commerce to ensure that these limits are not exceeded. However, we may not know all of the ill-effects of pesticides we use today. A friend of mine has stories of him and his buddies riding bicycles in the fog behind the trucks spraying DDT to control mosquitoes back in the early 1960's -- something to make parents and grandparents cringe!
Since 1995, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a U.S.-based environmental advocacy organization, has developed an annual list of fruits and vegetables, referred to as the “Dirty Dozen,” suspected of having the greatest potential for contamination with residues of pesticides. For the produce on the list, the EWG recommends consumers choose organic forms. The June 2010 dirty dozen are: celery, peaches, strawberries, apples, blueberries, nectarines, bell peppers, spinach, cherries, kale, potatoes, and grapes. According to the EWG release, “consumers can lower their pesticide consumption by nearly four-fifths by avoiding conventionally grown varieties of the 12 most contaminated fruits and vegetables.”
The August issue of a publication from the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), has an article questioning the EWG's statement about the dangers of pesticides from these 12 fruits and vegetables. The publication cites a recent study published in the Journal of Toxicology, in which the researcher's concluded that, “the potential consumer risks from exposure to the most frequently detected pesticides on the ‘Dirty Dozen’ list of foods are negligible and cast doubts as to how consumers avoiding conventional forms of such produce items are improving their health status.” You can read the EWG comments about the new public relations campaign by produce growers and pesticide manufacturers here.
While it may be true that based on current EPA tolerance levels, the pesticides found on the dirty dozen don't pose a health threat, the fact that the pesticides cause environment damage still exists. It may be a case too, that no one knows the true impact of pesticides. There are several studies that implicate pesticides with negative effects on human health:
- A study reported in Diabetes Care links older pesticides that are now banned and type 2 diabetes.
- A new analysis of U.S. health data links children's attention-deficit disorder with exposure to common pesticides used on fruits and vegetables.
- A report from Harvard School of Public Health links pesticide exposure and Parkinson's disease.
- Research from the University of North Dakota links pesticides with brain diseases including Alzheimer disease.
I eat a lot of fruits and vegetables; they are the main part of my diet. I make an effort to buy organic whenever I can. When I feel that I can't afford the organic choice of a particular fruit/vegetable, I try to find an alternative fruit/vegetable that provides the relatively same nutrients. The "Green 15" is a list of produce that is an alternative to the dirty dozen. This list includes onions, corn, pineapples, avocado, asparagus, sweet peas, mangoes, eggplant, cantaloupe, kiwi, cabbage, watermelon, sweet potatoes, grapefruit and mushrooms -- all great nutritious foods. I try to make the healthier choice for me and the environment
Dang those pesky little pests. If they would give leave our produce alone, life would be so much easier.