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Pesticides in produce: 2023’s list of most and least contaminated foods

Close to 75 percent of non-organic fresh produce sold in the U.S. contains residues of potentially harmful pesticides.

Blueberries, beloved by nutritionists for their anti-inflammatory properties, have joined the "Dirty Dozen" list that includes strawberries. The list includes the 12 fruits and vegetables in the US containing large amounts of pesticides. Credit - Angelo DeSantis, from Berkeley, Calif. CC SA 2.0.
Blueberries, beloved by nutritionists for their anti-inflammatory properties, have joined the "Dirty Dozen" list that includes strawberries. The list includes the 12 fruits and vegetables in the US containing large amounts of pesticides. Credit - Angelo DeSantis, from Berkeley, Calif. CC SA 2.0.

Close to 75 percent of non-organic fresh produce sold in the U.S. contains residues of potentially harmful pesticides.

Blueberries have joined fiber-rich green beans in this year’s Dirty Dozen nonorganic produce with the most pesticides, according to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit environmental health organization.

Geen beans even tested positive for a neurotoxic insecticide called acephate that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has already banned.

“They actually took action on acephate for green beans [more than] a decade ago. Yet this most recent round of testing still shows that there are levels above that EPA limit for acephate on green beans, which sort of highlights this broken regulatory system around pesticide use,” EWG toxicologist Alexis Temkin, Ph.D., told EcoWatch.

In the 2023 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, researchers analyzed testing data on 46,569 samples of 46 fruits and vegetables conducted by the US Department of Agriculture. 

Each year, a rotating list of produce is tested by USDA staffers who wash, peel or scrub fruits and vegetables as consumers would before the food is examined for 251 different pesticides, according to WTVR.com.

The “Dirty Dozen” list

This year’s round of tests uncovered 251 different pesticides on almost 75 percent of non-organic, fresh produce sold in the U.S. The worst offenders — rated by the percent of samples with two or more pesticides, the average number of pesticides per sample, the average parts per million of pesticides found per sample, the most pesticides found in one sample of the product, or the total number of pesticides across all samples — make up the Dirty Dozen. The list includes the following:

  • Strawberries
  • Spinach
  • Kale, collard, and mustard greens
  • Peaches
  • Pears
  • Nectarines
  • Apples
  • Grapes
  • Bell and hot peppers
  • Cherries
  • Blueberries
  • Green beans

The EWG said 90% of strawberries, apples, cherries, spinach, nectarines, and grapes tested positive for residue of two or more pesticides, according to Scripps News.

The contamination of fruits and vegetables produced in the European Union by the most toxic pesticides has substantially increased over the past decade, according to new research published Tuesday. Credit – Santeri Viinamäki (CC SA 4.0)

The “Clean 15” Group

The Clean Fifteen list recommends 15 conventional fruits and vegetables least likely to contain pesticides. Indeed, nearly 65 percent of the samples of the 15 fruits and vegetables had no detectable pesticide residues at all. The report listed the following “Clean 15” as having the fewest detected pesticides:

  • Avocados
  • Sweet corn
  • Pineapple
  • Onions
  • Papaya
  • Sweet peas (frozen)
  • Asparagus
  • Honeydew melon
  • Kiwi
  • Cabbage
  • Mushrooms
  • Mangoes
  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Watermelon
  • Carrots
Guacamole lovers can relax: the US government has allowed avocado imports from Mexico to resume
Guacamole lovers can relax: the US government has allowed avocado imports from Mexico to resume – Copyright AFP GREG BAKER

Why does any of this matter?

With the exception of the high levels of acephate on some green beans, most of the pesticide residues found on fruits and vegetables were below safety thresholds set by the EPA, so why should we be concerned about consuming them? 

“The reason we’re concerned about consuming pesticides is that these sorts of exposures to chronic low levels of these mixtures of pesticides have been associated with adverse health effects,” Temkin told EcoWatch.

Those health effects include cancer risk, Type 2 diabetes, reproductive problems, and neurotoxicity in children. Indeed, children are especially vulnerable to pesticide exposure.

The National Academies of Sciences first warned about children’s exposure to pesticides three decades ago, and the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to parents.

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We are deeply saddened to announce the passing of our dear friend Karen Graham, who served as Editor-at-Large at Digital Journal. She was 78 years old. Karen's view of what is happening in our world was colored by her love of history and how the past influences events taking place today. Her belief in humankind's part in the care of the planet and our environment has led her to focus on the need for action in dealing with climate change. It was said by Geoffrey C. Ward, "Journalism is merely history's first draft." Everyone who writes about what is happening today is indeed, writing a small part of our history.

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