New California data about pesticides in food have been getting a fair amount of attention recently. Earlier this month, the state's Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) released results from 2013 food sampling by their Pesticide Monitoring Program.
Unfortunately, DPR’s conclusion that the residues they found on these latest food samples “pose no health risk” is more than a bit misleading. In fact, the trends indicated by the data are that the percentage of food samples containing pesticides has gone up over the past five years — as has the percentage of illegal residues found.
While it's true that most of the residues were at levels below current EPA safety standards, these "safe" levels overlook two critical realities of the risks associated with pesticide exposures.
Reality #1: More and more science points to health impacts of very low-level exposures, especially during fetal development and early childhood. The safety standards don't take this new science into account.
Reality #2: Many of the samples contained multiple pesticides. Yet when EPA sets its standards, it considers the impacts of one pesticide at a time — this method doesn't consider the additive or synergistic effects of exposure to multiple pesticides.
Given these very real gaps in assessing risk, I question whether DPR should be claiming “no health risk” from exposures to pesticide residues on our food.
What, me worry?
This statewide monitoring program provides us with important public health information, and as the data have been collected for many years, it allows us to observe trends over time. This is a good thing.
What did DPR find in this latest round of sampling? One or more pesticide residues were detected in more than 50% of the 3,483 samples taken. This is up from 39% in 2012, and 24% percent back in 2009. They also found a higher number of "illegal" residues, which means either detections of pesticides that are not approved for usage or pesticide residues found above legal levels.
This year the agency increased the number of residues being screened, from 200 to 300 pesticides — which could account in part for the jump. The samples taken are not totally randomized, so DPR also acknowledges that "some sampling bias may be incurred."
Even so, I don't find it reassuring that when they look for more residues they find them. Especially since the 300 chemicals sampled for represent a small percentage of all pesticides registered for agricultural use.
The perfect peach (and grape)?
DPR's monitoring program is sampling food that can be bought in California, not just food that is grown in the state. The data shows both where the samples were purchased and the state or country of origin — and in some cases the specific farm where the fruits and vegetables were grown.
Since we know that children are especially susceptible to pesticide exposures (even at very low levels), it might be useful to focus in just a bit on some of the foods they are most likely to eat.
For peaches, 78 individual samples were taken. Of those samples, over half (58%) had one or more pesticide residues found. Of these, many had multiple residues — for an average of 3.6 pesticide residues found.
Grapes appear to be more pesticide-intensive, at least those you can purchase in California. Seventy-four percent of the 117 individual grape samples taken had one or more pesticide residues, with an average of 4.9 pesticides found.
To find out more about pesticide residues on food, PAN’s searchable WhatsOnMyFood.org online database presents U.S. Department of Agriculture’s national residue data on fruits and vegetables, along with information on the health harms linked to detected pesticide residues.
Other pesticides, other questions
A plethora of pesticides are named in DPR's data file. We know the neurotoxic insecticide chlorpyrifos has been shown to have adverse neurodevelopmental effects at low doses — and that the timing of exposure over a person’s lifetime is key. This is one chemical of hundreds.
Given the stories we know best— undue industry influence over atrazine's registration process or both EPA and DPR lagging in their evaluation of potential harms of chlorpyrifos to human health — I have to ask myself if I'm confident that the rules that are supposed to protect our health, really do so. Are there other gaps in assessing risk of the pesticides we get on our food?
Pesticide applicators, farmworkers and farmers are rural communities can also be exposed to the chemicals that are showing up on our food. In addition to passing into our bodies (and in some cases, bioaccumulating), these pesticides also move into the air, the soil and the water. What's wrong with this picture?
Specific alternatives (read: agroecology) to conventional, large-scale agriculture (read: monoculture) do exist. We need to put major financial incentives in place for farmers to transition off their reliance on pesticides. That's how we're going to see a system-wide change that results in all of us — farmworkers, farmers and consumers — enjoying safe and healthy food and farming.