Pesticides on Food
The overwhelming majority of pesticides used on U.S. farms do not show up on our food. And yet,
- 93% of Americans tested by the CDC had metabolites of chlorpyrifos — a neurotoxic insecticide — in their urine. Banned from home use because of its risks to children, chlorpyrifos is part of a family of pesticides (organophosphates) linked to ADHD.
- 99% of Americans tested positive for DDT degradants, even though DDT hasn't been used in the U.S. since 1972. Women who were exposed to DDT as girls are 5 times more likely to develop breast cancer.
How is it that these two pesticides are found in over 90% of Americans? Through the food we eat.
Chlorpyrifos remains one of the most widely used pesticides in U.S. agriculture. DDT is a long-lasting persistent organic pollutant (POP) that bioaccumulates up the food chain, and can be found in most butter and milk. These are but two of the dozens of pesticides found on our food, even after washing.
We want to believe that government agencies are protecting us & our food supply—but they are not. They don't have the right tools for the job.
We all want to believe that government agencies are protecting us and our food supply from chemical contaminants — but they are not. They do not have the regulatory framework to do so. In contrast to Europe's health-protective precautionary approach, U.S. policy treats chemicals as "innocent until proven guilty"— and it can take decades to reach a guilty verdict. And since chemicals are regulated one at a time, our rules fail to account for combined, cumulative or tragically timed effects.1
- Chemical Cocktails :: U.S. EPA sets limits on the maximum amount of each pesticide that can be on each food item, but there’s no limit to the number of different pesticides that can be on your food, or the total amount of contamination. Interacting chemicals can have synergistic effects at very low levels — and little research has been done on the impact of such "Chemical Cocktails" on human health.
- Accumulation :: Pesticides can have a cumulative "toxic loading" effect both in the immediate and long term, and each person accumulates and responds to chemicals in a way that is biochemically and biographically unique. From birth, we build up a chemical "body burden" that reflects a combination of childhood and workplace exposures, pesticide residues on food, chemicals in home and personal care products and the quality of air and water in our communities.
- Tragic timing :: What happens to the child who was exposed to a dilute mixture of neurotoxins and endocrine disruptors while still in the womb? She faces increased risks of neurodevelopmental disorders like ADHD and autism, as well as higher chances for birth defects and a variety of childhood and reproductive cancers.
The good news is that we don’t need pesticides to grow our own food, or to feed the world. Organic farmers in the U.S. produced more than $20 billion worth of pesticide-free food in 2007, and at a 20% annual growth rate, organics are the fastest growing agricultural sector. We need a better Farm Bill to support this kind of farming in the U.S., and to make this food affordable for everyone.
What's On My Food?
Q: How much pesticide exposure is too much?
A: Depends on the pesticide. Depends on the person. Depends on the timing and type of exposure.
The question is complicated, so we built a "decoder ring" for your food to help you understand the risks, according to the health issues that are of most concern to you: cancer, developmental and reproductive toxicity, neurotoxity or hormone disruption. Our website WhatsOnMyFood.org links pesticide food residue data from the USDA with toxicological profiles for each chemical, making this information easily searchable. Some examples of what you'll find:
- Azinphos-methyl, a neurotoxic insecticide, was found on almost 2/3 of imported pears.
- 97% of domestic catfish is contaminated with degradants of DDT.
- 48 different pesticides were found on spinach, including 5 known or probable carcinogens.
Kids & Organics
Children’s developing brains and bodies make them especially vulnerable to pesticide residues found on food. Pound for pound, they drink 2.5 times more water and eat 3-4 times more food. Studies have found that children with high pesticide exposures in the womb are at increased risk of being born with birth defects. They also face developmental delays and are more likely to suffer from ADHD and autism spectrum disorders.
Within days of switching to organic fruits & vegetables, many pesticides clear from children's bodies.
Fortunately, analysis has shown that within days of switching schoolchildren's diets from conventional to one with organic fruits and vegetables, many pesticide metabolites become undetectable in urine. According to The Organic Center, the most rigorous science tells us that organically grown produce is more nutritious than conventionally grown produce.
Going Deeper :: Justice & Sustainability
No Scrubbing to Safety :: Systemic Pesticides
Unfortunately, washing food (while important) is unlikely to be of much help — before testing, USDA washed & peeled their samples just as you would. And some pesticides, like imidacloprid are “systemic,” meaning they are taken up by a plant’s roots and distributed throughout the plant, so no amount of washing will remove them. This class of pesticides has been on the rise for the last 15 years, and now represents a new, unstudied and unregulated avenue of risk.
Systemic pesticides play a major role in dietary risk exposure in the U.S. According to one analysis, systemic insectides account for about 60% of dietary risk in domestic crops.
Included in this class of pesticides are genetically engineered crops like Bt corn, which express an endotoxin that is likewise impossible to wash off. The average ear of U.S.-grown corn likely has 3 different systemic insecticides coursing through its tissue. Corn is in many ways the backbone of the U.S. food system as cattlefeed, high-fructose corn syrup, and a variety of other processed food products.
Eating and buying organic is an important way to protect your family's health and to support sound farming close to home. For many, it is also — and in a deeper way — a matter of justice and environmental sustainability for future generations and people and places far away.
Farmworkers, their families, and rural communities carry the heaviest burden of chemically dependant farming systems. Biodiversity, wildlife, water quality, and the stability of our climate also suffer. And it is a fact of life that most people either cannot afford, or cannot access organic food — much as farmworkers cannot choose to work only in pesticide-free fields.
Pesticide residues on food are how most people come to the problem of pesticides — as consumers. In our daily lives, this marketplace choice is how we are asked to think about food. At PAN, we think it is important to respond to these concerns, connect some dots, and then come together to push for deeper, more systemic change.
Because everybody deserves the right to healthy food and a safe workplace.
1. See Monossoon, E., "Chemical Mixtures: Considering the Evolution of Toxicology and Chemical Assessment," Environmental Health Perspectives, Vol. 113, No. 4, April 2005. for an overview of the history and limitations of E.P.A.’s risk assessment models.