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6 Fruits and Veggies With Highest Pesticide Risk, Per Consumer Reports

6 Fruits and Veggies With Highest Pesticide Risk, Per Consumer Reports
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Several popular fruits and vegetables — including blueberries, bell peppers and green beans — have traces of harmful pesticides that could affect a person’s health, Consumer Reports warns in a new analysis released on Thursday.

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The nonprofit organization looked at seven years of pesticide residue testing results for 59 types of produce from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and concluded pesticides pose “significant risks” in 20% of the foods it reviewed. These risks are present for certain groups, like children and pregnant women, even when as little as half of or one serving is consumed.

But everyone should limit their intake of these fruits and vegetables, Consumer Reports advises.

The Alliance for Food and Farming, which represents farmers of fruits and vegetables, points out that more than 99% of foods tested by the government in 2022 — the most recent year for which information is available — had residues below the limits established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. More than a quarter, 27%, had no detectable residue.

Consumer Reports says those EPA limits don’t go far enough.

“We believe that the limits should be lower to be more protective,” James Rogers, Ph.D., the director of food safety research and testing at Consumer Reports, tells TODAY.com.

“Those are levels (that) were set in the past, and they should be re-examined to see if they’re accurate.”

EPA’s way of assessing pesticide risk “doesn’t reflect cutting-edge science” or all the ways the chemicals might affect people’s health, CR senior scientist Michael Hansen, Ph.D. noted in the analysis.

But the EPA says it bases its decisions on the best available and sound science, considers all relevant scientific data, and stands by its “comprehensive” pesticide assessment and review process to ensure the safety of the U.S. food supply.

“EPA cannot verify the specific merits of the claims in the Consumer Reports article due to the lack of information available on how their analysis was conducted… and the relevance or scientific basis of their approach to dietary analysis that would support their conclusions,” the agency says in a statement to TODAY.com.

“Aspects of the article demonstrate a misunderstanding of EPA’s risk assessment approaches.”

In more encouraging findings, pesticide residue posed little or no risk in almost two-thirds of the fruits and vegetables Consumer Reports reviewed and almost all of the organic produce.

Debate over the limits is likely confusing for the general public, says registered dietitian Natalie Rizzo, nutrition editor for TODAY.

“I’m not a scientist, but I do believe that eating any fruits and vegetables is better than avoiding them due to pesticide concerns,” she notes.

“Sadly, I do think that reports like this will discourage people from eating fruits and vegetables because they will be scared to eat conventional, and organic is expensive.”

Are pesticides on produce harmful?

To come up with its risk ratings, Consumer Reports considered how many pesticides were found in each food, how often they showed up, the amount detected and how toxic each chemical was.

More than 800 pesticides — chemicals to kill insects or control fungi — are used in the U.S., some of which “may pose risks for a variety of health problems,” according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

Studies have linked pesticides to risk for Parkinson’s disease, thyroid disease, diabetes, kidney diseases, cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and shingles, the agency notes. Children are particularly susceptible to the adverse effects.

But people are generally exposed to only very small amounts of pesticides — “too small to pose a risk,” the EPA says on its website.

However, “long-term exposure to even small amounts of pesticides may be especially harmful to people with chronic health problems, those who live in areas where they are exposed to many other toxins, and people who face other social or economic health stresses,” Jennifer Sass, Ph.D, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Consumer Reports.

Consumer Reports wants the EPA to ban the use of organophosphates or carbamates — two classes of chemicals that affect the nervous system and that the organization says are responsible for most of the health risk — on food crops.

On its website, the EPA says children’s exposure to carbamates fell by 70% from 1995 to 2013 as the agency canceled or restricted many carbamates during this time.

From 1998 to 2008, tomatoes with detectable organophosphate pesticide residues fell from 37% to 9%, “due to EPA canceling most organophosphates,” the website notes.

Where the produce comes from also matters. In the analysis, 65 of the 100 samples with the highest pesticide risk levels were imported, most from Mexico. Most were green beans — which were often contaminated with a pesticide not allowed to be used on the vegetable in the U.S. — and strawberries.

Fruits with risky pesticides

The following fruits were of most concern for Consumer Reports:

Blueberries

About 20% of domestic conventionally grown samples had residue of phosmet, “a pesticide that the EPA considers a particular risk to children,” Consumer Reports says. It’s in the organophosphate class of chemicals.

Conventional frozen blueberries also posed a very high risk, the organization says.

It recommends organic blueberries or organic strawberries as a better choice.

Watermelon

About 3% of domestic conventionally grown samples tested positive for oxamyl, the same chemical found on peppers, at levels “far above” what Consumer Reports considers safe.

“We suggest that if you’re concerned, since it’s a high-risk pesticide, switch to cantaloupe,” Rogers says.

Vegetables with risky pesticides

The following vegetables were of most concern for Consumer Reports:

Almost half of all domestic conventionally grown samples tested positive for oxamyl — part of the carbamate class of chemicals — or its breakdown product, oxamyl oxime, according to Consumer Reports. The organization warns oxamyl has potential for serious health risks.

It recommends buying organic or eating peppers sparingly, including hot peppers, which CR says also pose a high risk.

Potatoes

Almost all domestic conventionally grown samples had residue of chlorpropham, another carbamate pesticide, Consumer Reports says. Organic potatoes also showed some contamination.

The chemical prevents potatoes from sprouting during storage and transport to the grocery store, Rogers says. “It is quite possible they do not have that problem with sweet potatoes, so they do not use that pesticide on sweet potatoes.”

That’s why sweet potatoes are a better choice — they’re low risk, in addition to their excellent nutrition, the organization advises.

Green beans

About 4% of domestic conventionally grown samples had residue of acephate or one of its breakdown products, methamidophos, even though the EPA banned acephate for use on the vegetable in 2011, Consumer Reports says.

“So where is it coming from? That says to us that something is not being enforced to prevent these growers — and this is domestic, it wasn’t imported — from using this banned pesticide in the cultivation of green beans,” Rogers notes.

The detection of acephate in green beans is “an excellent example of where inspections (are) critical,” the EPA says. It’s a violation of federal law to use a pesticide in a way that’s inconsistent with its labeling, it notes.

While the number of samples testing positive was small, the pesticide residue levels were often “alarmingly high,” according to the report. In one sample, methamidophos levels were more than 100 times the level CR considers safe. In another sample, acephate levels were seven times higher.

“So your risk of actually picking a bad batch of green beans was low. But if you got that bad batch, your exposure to those pesticides were high because the concentration of those were so high,” Rogers says.

Organic green beans grown in the U.S. and snow peas are a better choice.

Kale and mustard greens

Samples of these vegetables grown conventionally in the U.S. sometimes contained a mix of pesticides, Consumer Reports says.

It recommends choosing organic kale and mustard greens instead, as well as broccoli, fresh spinach or lettuce.

How to reduce pesticide intake

Washing can help, as can peeling the skin, but some pesticides are systemic so they’re in the produce itself, Consumer Reports notes.

Eat the higher risk fruits and vegetables in moderation, Rogers advises — up to half a serving a day for foods Consumer Reports deems as “very high risk,” such as blueberries conventionally grown in the U.S.

Consider buying organic and look for the USDA organic seal because the regulations required for that distinction really do make a difference, he adds.

But that can be expensive, Rizzo notes.

“My 2-year-old son loves strawberries and blueberries, and the organic version of those is out of my weekly budget,” she says.

Rogers recommends buying organic products in bulk when they’re on sale and freezing them.



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