How Important Is Your Choice?
Assessing the dangers of pesticides can be confusing. Here's a look at the health risks of selecting conventional over organic foods
By Debra Bokur
You're in the grocery store perusing the produce and decide to add a few nonorganic apples to your cart. You may feel a little guilty, but hey, you think, the organic apples are 20 cents more per pound. It's not a big deal to buy the conventionally grown ones just this once, right?
Millions of shoppers are asking themselves this very question: How bad is it for your health to eat nonorganic produce? After all, people have been buying and eating conventionally grown foods for decades. Yet some experts suggest consumers should not treat the choice so casually.
"How real is the threat of pesticide residue to the average consumer?" asks Eric Cardenas, program director for the Central Coast Environmental Health Project based in Santa Barbara, California. "It's very real. More and more evidence is surfacing that pesticide residue is even present to some degree in organic foods. The fact of the matter is that when you expose foods to chemicals, the likelihood is increased for some sort of health reaction somewhere down the line. More people are being diagnosed with cancer and diseases related to environmental contaminants, and many children's illnesses are being linked to environmental toxins."
Equally alarming is the fact that many pesticides build up cumulatively in the body over a lifetime. Researchers at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York recently tested pesticide levels in several volunteers, including television journalist Bill Moyers, who was found to have 84 toxic chemicals in his body. Another participant, a researcher for an environmental group, had 106 chemicals in his body. But amid the scary statistics is good news about buying organic foods. And when you can't buy organic, you can still take steps to help protect your health and the health of your family.
Assessing The Risks
Studies on the results of pesticide exposure abound, and researchers have linked pesticides—a term that refers to anything that kills pests, including insects, weeds, and even fish—to numerous diseases, from asthma to cancer. Certain groups—including farmworkers, people with compromised immune systems, the elderly, developing fetuses, and children—are at higher risk than other populations. And pesticides aren't just in the foods we eat; much of people's exposure comes from a polluted environment.
"Pesticides are pervasive," says Monica Moore, co-director of Pesticide Action Network, North America, a national organization focusing on pesticide issues. "We are like canaries in coal mines, exposed to pesticides in food, air, and water. Many of these pesticides are linked with negative health effects." Moore cites rising asthma rates among children as an example.
Banned more than 30 years ago in the United States, the pesticide DDT and its breakdown products are still present in everything from groundwater and soil to food and breast milk.
Source: Environmental Media Services.
Young children, who are still developing and consume a large amount of produce in comparison to their low body weight, are especially at risk from pesticide exposure. Kids and infants also eat foods that tend to be high in pesticides, such as fruits, juices, and vegetables. A 2003 study at the University of Southern California showed that exposure to pesticides in the first year of life increases a child's risk of asthma (Food Chemical News Publishing, 2003, vol. 31, no. 32). Exposure to herbicides, a subcategory of pesticides that specifically kill weeds, before age 1 increased asthma risk 4.59 times, and exposure to other pesticides increased the risk by 2.4 times.
Exposure to organophosphates, the most common type of pesticide now used, was six times higher in children who ate conventional products than those who ate organic products, according to a 2003 study at the University of Washington (Environmental Health Perspectives, vol. 111, no. 3). In the study, parents of preschoolers kept food diaries for three days, after which researchers collected and analyzed the children's urine. Almost half the children ate diets that included at least 75 percent organic fruits and vegetables; the other group ate at least 75 percent nonorganic fruits and vegetables. The bright side? The study shows that feeding children organic produce significantly lessens pesticide exposure; in fact, parents in this study were able to reduce their children's pesticide exposure from above to below the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's current guidelines, simply by choosing organic foods for their kids.
Chemical farming is relatively new. Synthetic pesticides did not come into widespread use until after World War II.
Source: California Environmental Protection Agency.
Diverse studies also continue to show an association between cancer in humans and exposure to common pesticides. In fact, researchers at the National Cancer Institute have identified conventional farming as the most consistent occupational risk factor for prostate cancer (American Journal of Epidemiology, 2003, vol. 157, no. 9). Studies conducted by the National Cancer Institute, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, and the Environmental Protection Agency reveal that farmers who work with the chemical methyl bromide—used frequently on grain crops and to fumigate grain bins and agricultural storage devices—show high rates of prostate cancer.
Pesticides may also play a role in breast cancer. A 2003 study of more than 400 women in Belgium showed that women diagnosed with breast cancer were five times as likely to have residues of the pesticide DDT—as well as hexachlorobenzene (HCB), a by-product of manufacturing pesticides and other chemicals—in their blood (Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 2003, vol. 60, no. 5). The U.S. banned DDT in 1972, but this type of pesticide can remain in your body for at least 50 years.
Given the grim statistics, what can you do every week at the grocery store when you confront myriad food choices? One major choice that can affect your health is to opt for organic. Until recently, researchers hadn't yet demonstrated the health benefits of eating organic foods. People simply assumed organic foods were healthier because they didn't contain harmful chemicals. Now research suggests that organically grown foods do in fact contain lower levels of toxic residue. A 2002 study showed only 23 percent of the organic produce samples tested contained pesticides, compared with 73 percent of conventionally grown samples (Food Additives and Contaminants, 2002, vol. 19, no. 5).
Recent research also suggests that organic fruits and vegetables contain more nutrients than their nonorganic counterparts. And that's big news. In a 2003 study comparing organic and conventionally grown corn, strawberries, and marionberries, the organic fruits and vegetables showed significantly higher levels of the cancer-fighting antioxidants known as phenolics than conventionally grown samples (Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, 2003, vol. 51, no. 5). Why? Apparently, plants produce the bitter-tasting phenolics to ward off pests, but pesticides reduce the need for plants to produce these antioxidants. The researchers intend to test tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, and other vegetables as well, believing the findings will be similar across the board.
Rethink Your Salad
Want to estimate the number of pesticides you're eating in a salad made from conventionally grown or organic fruits or vegetables? Go to www.foodnews.org and click on "Virtual Fruit Salad" or "Interactive Garden Salad." Pick the produce you normally eat, and, based on tens of thousands of government tests of pesticide residue, the Environmental Working Group will calculate the number of pesticides that would be in this salad if you chose organic or nonorganic. We warn you: You may never look at salad the same way again.
If organics are not an option for you, you can still take steps to reduce your risk of pesticide exposure. "If you can't buy organic, try to buy the least contaminated fruits and vegetables," says Kai Robertson, director of private sector initiatives at the Environmental Working Group, a not-for-profit environmental research organization in Washington, D.C. "Our organization has a list of ten fruits and ten vegetables that are low in pesticides, and personally, when I go shopping, that's what I look for." Also, avoid conventionally grown fruits and vegetables that tend to have high levels of pesticide residue, including peaches, apples, spinach, and bell peppers. (See "Clip This For Shopping" for a list of conventionally grown produce most and least likely to have high levels of pesticide residue.) Nonorganic produce grown in the United States may also harbor fewer and less-toxic pesticides than nonorganic fruits and vegetables grown in foreign countries because the latter are not subject to USDA regulations.
Next, be sure to wash all fruits and vegetables thoroughly with cold water or a mild, nontoxic, ecofriendly soap before eating. "Washing is always a good idea," says Robertson, "because of dirt. And with some fruit, like apples, there's wax that is put on the fruit, which retains any pesticides underneath. Plus, there's always the benefit of peace of mind—of knowing that you're doing the best you can." (Debate continues regarding the benefits of using a special produce-washing soap, though generally these aren't thought to be necessary.) You may also want to take off the outer portions of celery, lettuce, and other leafy vegetables where the majority of pesticide residue may lurk. Just remember, even organically grown produce can have pesticide residue from drift and from chemicals that remain in the soil after years of conventional farming.
A final tip is to "eat the rainbow" by choosing produce that runs the gamut in color. "If you choose variety when you consume fruits and vegetables, then you're reducing the risk of an overdose of any one particular pesticide," says Robertson. "It helps spread the risk around."
The Big Picture
To protect yourself from the dangers of pesticides, buying organic products is an important step, but it isn't the whole solution. "Buying organic is great, but there's a need to go further and to support local production and the transition of local production to organic and other sustainable methods," says Moore.
To be sold, labeled, or represented as organic, an agricultural product must come from land to which no prohibited substances have been applied during the three years immediately preceding harvest.
Cardenas agrees—and takes it one step further. "Food purchasing is one of the things closest to us that's within our control," he says. "But it's equally important to limit chemical use in parks, public buildings, and nonfood products. Homeowners need to be responsible by using nontoxic cleaning and personal products. And it's important to go to the next level and find out what's happening in your community. Are there policies in place to protect your children from toxic chemical exposure in their schools and in the public places where they play? Participating in these bigger-picture activities will also be beneficial to you as an individual." Taking a political stand and encouraging local governments to eliminate the use of toxic chemicals is an important step citizens can take. After all, until the use of pesticides has ceased on a global scale, contamination will continue, contributing to a host of diseases and further poisoning the planet's ecosystems.
Debra Bokur is a freelance writer who covers the natural products industry.