Blueberries and Green Beans Added to EWGs Dirty Dozen Produce List
Blueberries and green beans have the unsavory distinction this year of being added to the “Dirty Dozen,” a ranking of conventionally grown, nonorganic produce items with the most pesticide residue. The list is compiled annually by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit health organization. Celery and tomatoes, which appeared among the Dirty Dozen last year, have now dropped off the list.
“Everyone — adults and kids — should eat more fruits and vegetables, whether organic or not,” said Alexis Temkin, PhD, a toxicologist at EWG, in a press release.
“But in the ongoing absence of meaningful federal oversight, consumers concerned about pesticide exposure can use EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce to navigate the produce aisle in ways that work best for them and their families,” Dr. Temkin said.
The nonprofit also publishes the “Clean 15,” a list of conventional produce with the least amount of pesticides.
EWG Report Relies on Federal Produce Testing DataEPA regulations limit the kind and amount of pesticides permitted for conventional farming, but the chemicals can still pose health hazards, and these substances — including some that have been banned — continue to be used to treat our nation’s nonorganic produce.
The EWG’s results are based on latest testing data from over 45,000 samples of 46 fruits and vegetables provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The new 2023 report found that nearly three-quarters of nonorganic fresh produce sold in the United States contains residues of potentially harmful pesticides. Some of the testing showed traces of pesticides long since banned by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
“Despite the abundance of science linking exposure to pesticides with serious health issues, a potentially toxic cocktail of concerning chemicals continues to taint many of the nonorganic fruits and vegetables eaten by consumers,” said Temkin.
What Is the ‘Dirty Dozen’ Produce List?These are the 12 fruits and vegetables most contaminated by pesticides in 2023, according to the EWG: strawberries; spinach; kale, collards, and mustard greens; peaches; pears; nectarines; apples; grapes; bell and hot peppers; cherries; blueberries; and green beans.
Kale, collards, and mustard greens, as well as hot peppers and bell peppers, had the most pesticides detected of any crop — 103 and 101 pesticides in total, respectively.
Focusing on the new addition of blueberries and green beans, the 2023 guide noted that these products had “troubling concentrations” of organophosphate insecticides, chemicals that can harm the human nervous system. The neurotoxic pesticide acephate, which the EPA banned from use on green beans in 2011, was detected on 6 percent of green bean samples.
Although the United States has banned certain chemicals for use on crops, a report published in the scientific journal Environmental Health in June 2019 found that America lags behind other agricultural nations in banning harmful pesticides.
The EWG report concluded that much stricter federal regulation and oversight of these chemicals is needed.
What Are the Potential Health Problems Posed by Pesticides?Because pesticides are toxic by design and meant to kill living organisms (insects, plants, and fungi considered to be pests), it might be expected that they can be harmful to humans as well.
The health effects of pesticides depend on the type of chemical. The EPA warns that some classes of pesticide, such as organophosphates and carbamates, affect the nervous system. Others may increase cancer risk, irritate the skin or eyes, or affect the hormone or endocrine system in the body.
“Research has shown that children are at higher risk for health effects from exposure to pesticides than adults, because their internal organs are still developing and maturing,” says Beth Czerwony, RD, a registered dietitian with Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Human Nutrition, who was not involved in the study.
An analysis of 83 studies regarding the health effects of food contaminants on young children published in the July 2021 issue of Nutrients revealed that chronic exposure can lead to developmental delays, disorders of the nervous, urinary, and immune systems, and to cardiovascular disease.
The threats pesticides pose to children’s health have been known since at least 1993–30 years ago — when the National Academies of Science published a landmark study warning of inadequate oversight, according to the EWG.
What Is the ‘Clean 15’ List?One way to decrease possible exposure to pesticides is to choose more products known to have lower contamination. These 15 produce items had the lowest amounts of pesticide residues, according to the 2023 EWG report: avocados, sweet corn, pineapple, onions, papaya, sweet peas (frozen), asparagus, honeydew melon, kiwi, cabbage, mushrooms, mangoes; sweet potatoes, watermelon, and carrots.
Almost 65 percent of “Clean 15” fruit and vegetable samples had no detectable pesticide residues, according to the EWG analysis. Avocados and sweet corn were the cleanest produce; less than 2 percent of samples showed any detectable pesticides.
As the guide stresses, standards for growing organic produce ban the use of synthetic pesticides, and looking for the USDA Organic label is a simple way to identify items likely to have no or minimal traces of those substances.
“Consumption of organically produced food reduces pesticide exposure and is linked to a variety of health benefits, according to multiple studies, especially findings from a large study in France,” wrote the EWG in a statement.
How to Minimize Pesticide Exposure From Nonorganic ProduceWhile the Shopper’s Guide can help consumers make fruit and vegetable selections that will minimize exposure to harmful chemicals, Czerwony advises that consumption of fruit and vegetables — organic or not — is critical to a healthy diet. She notes that the U.S. Dietary Guidelines urge Americans to incorporate more fruits and vegetables into their daily eating habits.
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Cleaning nonorganic produce can also help lower risks from pesticides. “As a rule of thumb, washing with water reduces dirt, germs, and pesticide residues remaining on fresh fruit and vegetable surfaces,” says Czerwony. “Washing and rubbing produce under running water is better than dunking it.”
She also suggests that produce with thicker skins that can be removed — such as melons and bananas — pose less risk.
Ultimately, for Czerwony, the value of eating fresh fruits and vegetables outweighs potential hazards. In other words, conventional blueberries are better than no blueberries at all.
“The body has its own way of eliminating pesticides, so there should not be a fear associated with consuming fresh foods,” she says. “Enjoying a variety of foods helps to have a healthy body that can self-regulate and decrease health risk.”