Collard and mustard greens join kale among the most pesticide-contaminated fresh produce on the Environmental Working Group’s 2021 Dirty Dozen list. For the first time, bell peppers and hot peppers have made the list.
The Dirty Dozen and the Clean Fifteen make up EWG’s annual Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, which analyzes U.S. Department of Agriculture test data to identify which fresh fruits and vegetables are most and least contaminated with pesticide residues.
Fruits and vegetables are critical components of a healthy diet whether they’re organic or conventionally grown, said EWG toxicologist Thomas Galligan, Ph.D.
“We urge consumers who are concerned about their pesticide intake to consider, when possible, purchasing organically grown versions of the foods on EWG’s Dirty Dozen, or conventional produce from our Clean Fifteen,” Galligan said.
This year, the USDA’s tests found residues of potentially harmful chemical pesticides on nearly 70 percent of the non-organic fresh produce sold in the United States. Before testing fruits and vegetables, the USDA washes, scrubs ,and peels them, as consumers would.
More leafy greens contaminated
Until this year, kale was alone in the No. 3 spot on the Dirty Dozen list. A total of 94 different pesticides were found on leafy greens, including neonicotinoids, or neonics. One sample of mustard greens had 20 different pesticides, and some kale and collard samples had as many as 17.
On all three types of greens, the pesticide most often detected by the USDA was DCPA, sold under the brand name Dacthal. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies DCPA as a possible human carcinogen, and the European Union banned it in 2009.
Neonics are the fastest-growing class of insecticides, despite a decade of research showing that they’re highly toxic to honeybees and other pollinator species, he said. Some studies on human health also suggest that exposure to neonics may be harmful to the developing fetus and to children.
Peppers included in Dirty Dozen
Bell peppers and hot peppers, tested for the first time since 2012 and 2011, respectively, are also included in this year’s list at No. 10. The USDA found 115 pesticides on peppers – the most on any item.
Bell peppers and hot peppers contain concerning levels of acephate and chlorpyrifos, respectively – organophosphate insecticides that can harm children’s developing brains and are banned from use on some crops in the U.S. and from all uses in the EU.
In 2017, the EPA, under the Trump administration, rejected a proposed chlorpyrifos ban, allowing it to remain on the market and therefore in foods.
Legal but not safe
Most pesticide residues the USDA finds fall within government-mandated restrictions. But legal limits aren’t always safe, according to EWG.
The EPA’s safety levels, called tolerances, help agency regulators determine whether farmers are applying pesticides properly. If tolerance levels were set to protect all children eating produce, as EWG thinks they should be, more fruits and vegetables would fail to meet them.
In addition to killing insects, plants, and fungi, many pesticides also pose health dangers to people, including hormone disruption, brain and nervous system toxicity, and cancer.
“EPA’s tolerances are often far higher than what many scientists believe is safe – particularly for pregnant women, babies and young children,” said EWG President Ken Cook.
EWG releases its Shopper’s Guide each year so consumers can make informed decisions that will let them reduce their family’s exposure to toxic pesticides while allowing them to eat plenty of healthy fruits and vegetables, Cook said.
Health benefits of reducing pesticide consumption
Organic standards prohibit the use of synthetic pesticides. Eating organic food reduces pesticide exposure and is linked to a variety of health benefits, according to an article published last year.
In four clinical trials, people who switched from conventional to organic foods saw a rapid and dramatic reduction in their urinary pesticide concentrations.
Additional studies have linked higher consumption of organic foods to lower urinary pesticide levels, improved fertility and birth outcomes, reduced incidence of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and lower BMI and reduced risk of Type 2 diabetes.
Babies and children are especially vulnerable to many of the health effects associated with many pesticides, as the American Academy of Pediatrics recognized in a 2012 report on organic food.
“An all-organic diet is simply not affordable or accessible for many Americans,” said Philip Landrigan, M.D., a pediatrician and epidemiologist. “EWG’s Shopper’s Guide provides useful, straightforward guidelines for choosing both organic and conventional produce to provide children with the healthy fruits and vegetables they need, but not the pesticide load they don’t.”
How to use Shopper’s Guide
Released annually since 2004, EWG’s Shopper’s Guide ranks the pesticide contamination of 46 popular fruits and vegetables. It’s based on results of USDA and Food and Drug Administration tests of more than 46,000 samples of produce.
EWG recommends that whenever possible, consumers purchase organic produce on the Dirty Dozen list. When organic produce is unavailable or not affordable, EWG advises consumers to continue eating fresh produce, even if conventionally grown.
No evidence of covid-19 in food
There’s no evidence that people can be exposed to covid-19 through food. Even though the risks of covid-19 are serious, consumers should continue to eat plenty of healthy fruits and vegetables, whether organic or conventionally grown, EWG advises.