Eat your fruits and vegetables! The health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure -- eating conventionally-grown produce is far better than not eating fruits and vegetables at all.
But every year, as acknowledged by U.S. and international government agencies, different pesticides have been linked to a variety of health problems, including:
- Nervous system toxicity
- Hormone system effects
- Skin, eye and lung irritation
Pesticides are unique among the chemicals we release into the environment. They are designed to kill living organisms -- insects, plants, and fungi that are considered "pests." Because they are toxic by design, many pesticides pose health dangers to people, risks that have been established by independent research scientists and physicians across the world.
Ignorance Does Not Equal Safety
In the face of a growing body of science raising concerns about the health risks of chemical exposures, pesticide manufacturers claim that pesticide residues on produce are too slight to elicit safety concerns. Yet such defenses are often made in the absence of actual data. In general, the government demands, and companies conduct, high-dose studies designed to find gross, obvious toxic effects such as poisoning. High-dose studies do not address the real-world implications of human exposure to pesticide and chemical mixtures over many years.
Most Americans have detectable concentrations of multiple pesticide residues in their bodies, according to biomonitoring surveys by scientists at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC studies show that people, and even the developing fetus, are also routinely exposed to hundreds of industrial chemicals. Most safety tests done for regulatory agencies are not designed to discover whether exposures to low doses of mixtures of pesticides and other toxic chemicals are safe, particularly during critical periods of development. True public health protection would require consideration of cumulative risks of exposure to multiple toxic chemicals over time.
Children Are At Greatest Risk
Protecting our families' health from chemical exposures can start with minimizing children's exposure to pesticides. It is well established that pesticides pose a risk to vital organ systems that grow and mature from conception throughout infancy and childhood. Exposure to pesticides and other toxic chemicals during rapid development can have lasting adverse effects both in early childhood and later in life.
The metabolism, physiology and biochemistry of the fetus, infant and young child are fundamentally different from those of adults. A young organism is often less able to metabolize and inactivate toxic chemicals. It can be much more vulnerable to the harmful effects of pesticides. Chemicals that do no measurable harm to adults can subtly and sometimes permanently damage the nervous system, brain, reproductive organs and endocrine (hormone) system of the fetus and young child. The developing brain and endocrine system are extremely sensitive to subtle changes in hormone levels that signal transitions to different developmental stages. As a result, exquisitely small exposures to pesticides at susceptible moments of development can mimic normal shifts in hormone levels and cause more damage than exposures to much higher doses that the body does not confuse with natural hormones.
Doesn't the Government Limit Pesticides?
When consumers realize the magnitude of the health threat posed by pesticides, they naturally wonder: Doesn't the government regulate these toxic chemicals? The answer is yes, to some extent. But government action has been far too slow and compromised by industry influence. The government said that highly toxic pesticides like DDT, chlordane and dursban were safe -- right up to the day the Environmental Protection Agency banned them.
The Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 was designed to require protection of infants and children from pesticides. This law produced significant reductions in children’s exposure to several classes of neurotoxic pesticides and fundamentally improved the health standards by requiring explicit protection of infants and children. But much remains to be done, especially in protecting human health from pesticide mixtures and chemicals that have endocrine-disrupting properties. Not surprisingly, pesticide makers and agribusiness groups have been fighting strict application of the statute, particularly provisions that require an extra 10-fold level of protection for infants and children.
What Can I Do to Reduce My Risk?
Addressing the risks of pesticide exposure first and foremost requires information, which is frequently not available to the general public. EWG believes that:
- People have a right to know what's in their food, so they can choose foods with fewer pesticides.
- The government can and should take steps to reduce dramatically the number and amount of toxic chemicals, including pesticides, in the food supply.
Each of us can opt for food safety today by choosing to purchase produce low in pesticides and by buying organically-raised fruits and vegetables as frequently as possible. With this first step we can protect our families' health from the harmful effects of pesticides and preserve our own future and the future of the environment.