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High Pesticide Levels Seen in U.S. Food

February 19, 1999 New York Times on the Web

High Pesticide Levels Seen in U.S. Food


alling into question the Federal Government's boast that the United States food supply is the safest in the world, a consumer group said Thursday that in a majority of cases, domestic produce had more, or more toxic, pesticide residues than imported produce.

The analysis by Consumer Reports of the amounts of pesticides on produce and their toxicity is bad news about some of the fruits and vegetables that children love best.

This information is not meant to frighten people into eating fewer fruits and vegetables, said Edward Groth, director of technical policy and public service for Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports.

"It's not about fear of food," Groth said. "It's about giving people information to make smart choices" to reduce the amount of pesticides they and their children ingest.

John McClung, vice president for issues of the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, a trade group, said the produce industry complied with the law.

"We are disappointed that they have chosen to continue to insist there is peril in fruits and vegetables," he said. "The risks are remote and hypothetical."

The group's analysis of 27 foods cited 7 fruits and vegetables -- apples, grapes, green beans, peaches, pears, spinach and winter squash -- as having toxicity at hundreds of times the levels of other foods analyzed. Foods with the lowest toxicity were apple juice, bananas, broccoli, canned peaches, milk, orange juice and canned or frozen peas and corn.

Children are at greater risk from pesticide residues because they eat far more produce per pound of body weight than adults eat and because children are more sensitive to effects of pesticides. Some pesticides are suspected of causing cancer, some are toxic to the nervous system and some may interfere with hormones.

To determine the relative toxicity of the produce, Consumer Reports created a toxicity index based on the frequency of pesticide detection, levels of residues and relative toxicity of residues. Using Department of Agriculture statistics based on 27,000 food samples from 1994 to 1997, the magazine looked at foods children are most likely to eat.

Almost all the foods tested for pesticide residues were within legal limits, but were frequently well above the levels the Environmental Protection Agency says are safe for young children. According to the Consumers Union report, even one serving of some fruits and vegetables can exceed safe daily limits for young children. The example used for a young child was a 5-year-old weighing an average of 44 pounds.

Domestic fresh peaches had the highest toxicity level, far above peaches imported from Chile. Canned domestic peaches had very very low toxicity. Frozen domestic winter squash had a much higher toxicity level than fresh domestic winter squash, but fresh and frozen imported winter squash had very low levels of toxicity.

Groth said it was "shocking" that foreign produce had lower levels of toxicity than domestic. He suggested the reason might be, in part, that foreign growers used fewer pesticides because of the additional costs. Processed fruits and vegetables often have lower levels of pesticide residues than fresh because they are peeled and because they do not have to be cosmetically perfect. In addition, many canners have contracts with growers that specify what pesticides can be used.

The Environmental Protection Agency is required by the 1996 Food Quality Protection Act to re-examine the effects on children of widely used pesticides. The agency has already lowered estimates for safe daily limits for ingestion of 19 of about 40 organophosphate pesticides, including methyl parathion, but it has not yet lowered the residue limits on foods. Methyl parathion accounts for most of the total toxicity on the foods that were analyzed, particularly peaches, frozen and canned green beans, pears and apples. Late last year, the agency said that the methyl parathion posed an "unacceptable risk" but that it had not taken any action to ban it or reduce its use. Organophosphates are neurological poisons and work the same on humans as they do on insects.

Dieldrin, banned since 1974, continues as a significant risk because it remains in the soil. Unlike methyl parathion, dieldrin is absorbed into the pulp of root vegetables as well as squashes, melons and cucumbers. The only way to avoid it is to plant crops in uncontaminated soil.

Aldicarb is the most acutely toxic of all pesticides currently in use. Like dieldrin, aldicarb cannot be washed or trimmed off.

Groth said there were at least 15 viable chemical or nonchemical alternatives for each hazardous pesticide.

Consumers Union has asked the Federal agency to act faster to reduce children's exposure, urging it to concentrate immediately on the few pesticides that contribute disproportionately to the toxicity of residues in the food supply.

A spokesman for the agency said it was "in the process of implementing the Food Quality Protection Act."

In addition to choosing foods with lower levels of toxicity, pesticide exposure can be reduced by peeling produce and by buying organically grown fruits and vegetables.

"There are plenty of ways parents can get healthy foods into kids without exposing them to high-risk stuff," Nancy Metcalf of Consumer Reports said.

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