In yesterdays NY Times (8/23/2009) there was an important article about the popular weed killer Atrazine, which is actually banned in Europe because it is a suspected endocrine disrupter. For decades, farmers, lawn care workers and professional green thumbs have relied on it to protect their crops, golf courses and manicured lawns. But atrazine often washes into water supplies and has become among the most common contaminants in American reservoirs and other sources of drinking water. Now, new research suggests that atrazine may be dangerous at lower concentrations than previously thought. Recent studies suggest that, even at concentrations meeting current federal standards, the chemical may be associated with birth defects, low birth weights and menstrual problems.
I thought it appropriate it to take the following frequently asked questions about Pesticides from What’s On My Food:
Does USDA wash or peel the fruits and vegetables before testing them?
USDA tries to prepare the food the same way you would. Most foods are washed and/or peeled. As an example, with broccoli, they remove any damaged or wilted parts, remove the inedible portion of the stem, and then wash the broccoli before testing.
Why are there any pesticide residues at all on organic food?
Pesticides arrive even at organic farms by air, water and dust. There is sometimes enough arriving this way that it is detectable on organic food. Even when there is a detectable amount of pesticide on organic food, it is usually much smaller than the amount on conventionally grown food.
Where did this data come from?
From 1992 to 2007, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) tested 89 different foods for pesticides. Since USDA often re-tests the same foods, and older tests aren’t as relevant for the food you purchase today, this website contains data only from the test years 1999 to 2007.
What’s the difference between a pesticide and a pesticide residue?
Pesticides can break down into related chemicals. When this occurs, USDA often tests for the related chemicals as well as for the pesticide itself. Whatever pesticides and related chemicals are left on the food are collectively called “pesticide residues.” Because “pesticide residues” can be a mouthful this website sometimes refers to “pesticides” when “pesticide residues” would be more complete and accurate.
How much pesticide exposure is too much?
Depends on the pesticide. Depends on the person. Depends on the timing and type of exposure.
What we do know is this: Pesticide regulations in the U.S. are well behind much of the rest of the industrialized world. This is mostly because agrichemical corporations like Monsanto have too much influence in Washington, but also because pesticide regulation in the U.S. does not adequately account for things like additive and synergistic effects.
Since the Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.) regulates most chemicals on a chemical-by-chemical basis, the combined and cumulative effects of a mixture of pesticides are nearly impossible for them to address – and so they usually don’t.
Given the complexities of chemical causality and disease-formation, the smart solution would be to follow the European Union’s lead and adopt the “precautionary principle” as the basis for regulatory decision-making. Put simply, this approach prioritizes protecting human health when there is significant doubt about the safety of a product. By contrast, pesticides and industrial chemicals in the U.S. are innocent until proven guilty. It often takes decades to prove a chemical guilty.
Meanwhile, we are exposed to dozens of pesticides in the food we eat, water we drink and air we breathe. People working on farms or living in rural areas near non-organic agricultural fields face even higher exposure levels.
How are we exposed?
Most of us are born with persistent pesticides and other chemicals already in our bodies, passed from mother to child during fetal development.
Pesticides don’t stay where they’re applied. They drift from their target and are carried in our air, oceans, rivers, groundwater and soil. They contaminate ecosystems and can poison fish, birds and wildlife. Water supplies around the world contain measurable amounts of pesticides, including atrazine. Atrazine, a suspected endocrine disruptor recently banned in Europe3, is the most commonly used herbicide in the U.S.
Besides heavy use in industrial farming, pesticides are used in or near playing fields, parks, schools, public gardens, golf courses, grocery stores, offices, apartment buildings, hotels and resorts, airplanes, cruise ships — the list goes on. Rural communities are routinely contaminated by pesticide drift, while city dwellers may trace pesticide residues on their shoes to public parks and even their apartment’s common areas.
How do pesticides impact our health?
The human health impacts linked to pesticide exposure range from birth defects and childhood brain cancer in the very young, to Parkinsons’ Disease in the elderly. In between are a variety of other cancers, developmental and neurological disorders, reproductive and hormonal system disruptions, and more.
- Breast Cancer
- Children’s diseases
- Endosulfan – Health effects
- Gestational diabetes
- Parkinson’s Disease
Does eating organic make a difference?
When researchers compared the levels of pesticide breakdown products in the bodies of children who eat organic and conventional diets, they found children who eat mostly organic foods carry fewer pesticides in their bodies. The good news is that some of these pesticides break down fairly quickly, which means increasing your consumption of organic foods can have an immediate impact on your pesticide exposure levels.
By eating food produced organically or without pesticides, not only will you be reducing the amount of pesticide in your body, you will be helping create a better environment for other people, the planet, and future generations. By engaging in political action to change our food system, you’ll be part of making sure that everyone can eat their meals without pesticides on the side.