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Are pesticides in food harmful?

Pesticides are chemicals that prevent insects, weeds, and fungi from damaging crops. Farmers use them to increase the amount of crops they are able to produce.

The United States government tests and regulates pesticides. Testing produce ensures that levels are low enough to not pose a risk to human health.

According to data from 2017, the most commonly used pesticides in the U.S. include:

  • glyphosate, which is an herbicide that people use to kill weeds and grasses
  • atrazine, which is an herbicide that people use to kill grassy and broadleaf weeds
  • metolachlor-S, which is an herbicide effective against grasses
  • dichloropropene, which treats the soil before planting to kill roundworms
  • 2,4-D, which is an herbicide that people use to kill broadleaf weeds

This article discusses how pesticides may be harmful to humans, and which fruits and vegetables contain the highest amounts of pesticide residue.

Pesticides can be toxic to humans, but the function of the pesticide determines how harmful they are.

The effect may also depend on the amount and concentration of the pesticide. It can also have different effects depending on whether a person gets it on their skin, swallows it, or inhales it.

There is not much research regarding the possible long-term health risks of pesticide exposure. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) suggest that coming into contact with large amounts of pesticides could affect reproduction and potentially be a cause of cancer.

According to the WHO, insecticides are typically more toxic to humans than herbicides.

Exposure to large quantities of a pesticide may cause poisoning. Symptoms of poisoning may appear immediately or after a few hours.

Some symptoms of mild poisoning may include:

Some symptoms of moderate poisoning may include:

  • blurred vision
  • confusion
  • vomiting
  • constriction of the throat
  • rapid pulse

Some symptoms of severe poisoning may include:

  • chemical burns
  • unconsciousness
  • an inability to breathe
  • excessive phlegm in the airways

If a person is concerned that they have been exposed to large quantities of pesticides, they should call Poison Control on 1-800-222-1222.

There is pesticide residue in food and water. Pesticides can run off fields or soak through the ground to enter watercourses. Spraying crops with pesticides, or using pesticides in the soil, can leave some residue on produce.

Exposure to pesticides is also common in some workplaces and outdoors during crop spraying.

Although people may consume pesticide residue, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set a benchmark for safe levels of pesticides in food. If a food product has an unsafe level of pesticides, the EPA can remove it from sale.

The Food Quality Protection Act regulates the use of pesticides in the U.S. This law enforces safety tests for new and current pesticides. Produce checks make sure that pesticide residue is at a level that will not harm infants, children, or adults.

People who work on farms are most at risk of exposure to pesticides. Employers should provide personal protective equipment to workers who have direct contact with pesticides. This includes clothing that prevents pesticides from coming into contact with the skin or being breathed in.

Those who work with pesticides should get regular checkups with a healthcare professional.

Before working with pesticides, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should talk to a doctor. Some pesticides may be harmful to babies.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) run a national program to test produce for pesticide levels. This program runs every year, and they make the results publicly available.

The USDA test more than 10,000 samples. In 2018, over 99% of the tested produce contained safe levels of pesticides, and 47.8% had no detectable levels of residue.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) create a consumer guide on pesticide levels in produce, based on data from these USDA tests. This guide lists produce according to the pesticide levels it contains.

The fruits and vegetables with the highest level of pesticides are:

These items contained higher amounts of pesticides than other fruits and vegetables. However, the USDA have classed these pesticide levels as safe for people to consume.

The fruits and vegetables with the lowest level of pesticides are:

It may not be possible to completely avoid pesticides in food, as their use is so widespread. That being said, a person can choose to buy and consume organic produce.

Farmers grow and produce organic food in line with government guidelines. These guidelines mean that organic farmers must:

  • avoid using pesticides and synthetic fertilizers
  • protect or improve soil and water quality
  • promote animal welfare
  • conserve wildlife
  • not use genetically modified organisms

Organic food can be expensive, however, and according to a 2017 comprehensive review, there is little difference in the nutrient content between organic and nonorganic produce.

Spraying fruits, vegetables, and crops with pesticides protects them from damage due to insects, weeds, and fungi.

Coming into contact with large amounts of pesticides can be harmful. Although most produce contains some level of pesticide residue, food testing ensures that the levels of pesticides are low enough to not pose a risk to human health. Strong laws regulate the sale and use of pesticides.

Organic food does not contain pesticide residue, but it can be more expensive.

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