Every year, the EWG (Environmental Working Group) shares lists they call the “dirty dozen” and the “clean fifteen” but, what do they mean?
The “dirty dozen” classifies which fruits and vegetables are the most contaminated with pesticide residue; while the “clean fifteen” compiles the least contaminated.
More and more Americans are demanding pesticide-free fruits and vegetables to consume. While no one questions that buying organic is best, it is also clear that not everyone can afford to do so regularly.
Shopping with the knowledge of which produce should be purchased as organic (or otherwise avoided), or which are acceptable even if they are not labeled organic can help us become more savvy shoppers and consumers.
The Problem With Pesticides
In the course of their research, the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) has discovered a total of 178 different pesticides (and pesticide breakdown products) on thousands of produce items. The residual pesticides remained on fruits and vegetables even after washing and, in some cases, even after being peeled.
The Effects of Pesticides on Human Health
According to ToxicAction.org:
Pesticides have been linked to a wide range of human health hazards, ranging from short-term impacts such as headaches and nausea to chronic impacts like cancer, reproductive harm, and endocrine disruption.
Acute dangers – such as nerve, skin, and eye irritation and damage, headaches, dizziness, nausea, fatigue, and systemic poisoning – can sometimes be dramatic, and even occasionally fatal.
Chronic health effects may occur years after even minimal exposure to pesticides in the environment, or result from the pesticide residues which we ingest through our food and water. A July 2007 study conducted by researchers at the Public Health Institute, the California Department of Health Services, and the UC Berkeley School of Public Health found a sixfold increase in risk factor for autism spectrum disorders (ASD) for children of women who were exposed to organochlorine pesticides.
Pesticides can cause many types of cancer in humans. Some of the most prevalent forms include leukemia, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, brain, bone, breast, ovarian, prostate, testicular and liver cancers. In February 2009, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry published a study that found that children who live in homes where their parents use pesticides are twice as likely to develop brain cancer versus those that live in residences in which no pesticides are used.
Studies by the National Cancer Institute found that American farmers, who in most respects are healthier than the population at large, had startling incidences of leukemia, Hodgkins disease, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and many other forms of cancer.
There is also mounting evidence that exposure to pesticides disrupts the endocrine system, wreaking havoc with the complex regulation of hormones, the reproductive system, and embryonic development. Endocrine disruption can produce infertility and a variety of birth defects and developmental defects in offspring, including hormonal imbalance and incomplete sexual development, impaired brain development, behavioral disorders, and many others. Examples of known endocrine disrupting chemicals which are present in large quantities in our environment include DDT (which still persists in abundance more than 20 years after being banned in the U.S.), lindane, atrazine, carbaryl, parathion, and many others.
Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) is a medical condition characterized by the body’s inability to tolerate relatively low exposure to chemicals. This condition, also referred to as Environmental Illness, is triggered by exposure to certain chemicals and/or environmental pollutants. Exposure to pesticides is a common way for individuals to develop MCS, and once the condition is present, pesticides are often a potent trigger for symptoms of the condition. The variety of these symptoms can be dizzying, including everything from cardiovascular problems to depression to muscle and joint pains. Over time, individuals suffering from MCS will begin to react adversely to substances that formerly did not affect them.
For individuals suffering from MCS, the only way to relieve their symptoms is to avoid those substances that trigger adverse reactions. For some individuals, this can mean almost complete isolation from the outside world.
The EWG’s Annual Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce
I was waiting to share this list until the EWG published the 2018 list. Sadly, we are now in April and no new list has appeared. Therefore I will share last year’s list.
When buying organic is not feasible, prior knowledge of the dirty dozen and of the clean fifteen can be important. These annual lists can assist you in shopping for healthier products while keeping a close eye on your wallet.
The Dirty Dozen 2017 (from most to least residue)
- Sweet bell peppers
Dirty Dozen Plus
Key findings (1):
- More than 98 percent of samples of strawberries, spinach, peaches, nectarines, cherries, and apples tested positive for residue of at least one pesticide.
- A single sample of strawberries showed 20 different pesticides.
- Spinach samples had, on average, twice as much pesticide residue by weight than any other crop.
The Clean Fifteen for 2017 (from least to most residue)
- Sweet corn
- Frozen sweet peas
- Honeydew melon
Key findings (1):
- Avocados and sweet corn were the cleanest: only 1 percent of samples showed any detectable pesticides.
- More than 80 percent of pineapples, papayas, asparagus, onions, and cabbage had no pesticide residues.
- No single fruit sample from the Clean Fifteen tested positive for more than four types of pesticides.
- Multiple pesticide residues are extremely rare on Clean Fifteen vegetables. Only 5 percent of Clean Fifteen vegetable samples had two or more pesticides.
GMO foods are most often contained in premade foods. However, I discovered in the EWG article that: “a small percentage of zucchini, yellow squash, and sweet corn is genetically modified. Most Hawaiian papaya is GMO.”
Federal law does NOT require the labeling of GMO produce. If you want to avoid GMO buy the produce listed above in the organic section of your favorite grocery store.
Sources for Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen 2017:
- https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/summary.php (1)