When you bite into a strawberry or tuck into some spinach or kale you may be congratulating yourself on your healthy food choice. Most people won’t even think about the pesticides they’re likely ingesting.
A list published last week noted that almost all of the samples of strawberries from the most recent tests conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture contained residues of at least one pesticide, even after washing. Nearly 60 percent of the sampled kale — frequently championed as a nutritious health food — had pesticide residues.
In all, around 70 percent of produce sold in the U.S. has pesticide residues, according to the annual “Dirty Dozen” report by nonprofit group The Environmental Working Group (EWG), which lists the foods with the highest and lowest levels of pesticide residues. It says we may be exposed to worrying amounts of pesticides.
“Studies have shown that eating fruits and vegetables free of pesticides benefits health, and this is especially important for pregnant women and children,” said Carla Burns, of the EWG.
This is one of a number of recent studies about the pesticides we consume through our fresh food, which are fueling a debate about whether consumers should be worried and how they can reduce exposure.
When it comes to the impact of pesticides on consumer health, the science is far from clear.
Government health experts say we do not need to worry as the levels of pesticide exposure from food are below the levels that could pose a risk to consumers’ health. Carl K. Winter, a food toxicologist at U.C. Davis, specifically analyzed the EWG list in a 2011 study and concluded that the quantities of pesticides mean that risks to consumers were negligible and that moving to organic versions — as the EWG suggests — was unlikely to bring people any measurable health benefits.
Organic produce is farmed to strict federal standards but it is not necessarily pesticide-free — the food just tends to be free from any synthetic pesticides. Also, for many people, buying organic may be prohibitively expensive. A Consumer Reports study found on average organic food was 47 percent more expensive than conventional produce.
The EWG acknowledges that a bigger risk than pesticides, as far as consumers are concerned, is not having enough fruit and vegetables in your diet, full-stop. The same point was echoed by public health researchers.
“It’s not healthy for people to be scared of their food,” said Asa Bradman, a professor at UC Berkeley School of Public Health. “There are a few articles that hint at the benefits of organic versus conventional, but at this point, the information is only limited and the benefits of eating a healthy diet and a good selection of fruit and vegetables means I would not want to discourage consumption of those foods by people.”
As science continues to seek a clearer picture on pesticides and consumer health, one thing that does seem clear is that there’s a swath of people who are much more clearly affected but tend to get ignored: The farmworkers who bring the food to our plates.
“My personal view is that the risk to consumers is low compared to the potential risk to agricultural workers,” said Bradman.
Thousands of farmworkers experience the effects of acute pesticide poisoning including headaches, nausea, shortness of breath or seizures, according to the nonprofit Farmworker Justice. Long-term exposure can lead to chronic health problems, such as infertility, neurological disorders and cancer, says the NGO, which has been documenting pesticide poisoning among workers.
One of the starkest examples came from Caldwell in Idaho. A crew of 29 farmworkers began weeding a field of onions and noticed that their clothes were getting wet, but they just assumed it was dew. What they didn’t realize — because no warning signs had been placed on the field — was that a contractor had applied three pesticides to the field during the night without notifying the farm owner.
By lunchtime, some of the workers were vomiting and had headaches and diarrhea. Twenty-two of them were hospitalized, with two in need of critical care. The farm was later fined for its failure to train employees properly and to provide proper safety information on the farm.
These incidents are sadly not uncommon, said Farmworker Justice, yet largely go unreported by national media, which focuses on the more disputed risk of pesticides to consumers.
Not only are farmworkers subjected to these risks, but their families — who live in nearby communities and attend schools neighboring the fields — face similar dangers. Pesticides can be brought into the home on clothing or through the air from neighboring farmland.
The effects are especially worrying in children working with or in close proximity to pesticides, who are particularly vulnerable, according to research. Pesticide exposure has been linked to neurological and behavioral problems in children. A 2010 study, for example, that looked specifically at children living in farming regions of California found a link between pesticide exposure and attention problems.
Farmworkers Justice has called for better and compulsory pesticide training for farmworkers, who are mostly low-income immigrants with limited formal education. It says regulators should ensure Spanish translations of pesticide labels (88 percent of farmworkers are Hispanic), buffer zones around schools and residential areas to protect families being exposed to pesticides through aerial drift, and funding to research the health effects of pesticide exposure.
Virginia Ruiz, from Farmworkers Justice, said little progress has been made on any of these requests. Although there are rules in California for small buffer zones around schools during certain hours of the day, nothing has changed at a national level. There have also been no new funding initiatives to research the health effects of pesticide exposure on people working or living near where they are used, she said.
Alex Chensheng, a professor of environmental exposure at Harvard, blames a strong farming lobby for blocking reform. It is very tough to make any significant policy progress on pesticides, he said, “If we can’t eliminate the conflict of interest, no true progress will be made.”
As well as stricter regulation and better safety measures, there is a safer solution for reducing pesticide risks to both farmworkers and consumers, say campaigners. And that solution is to encourage more farmers to shift away from using pesticides.
There are more than 14,000 certified organic farms in the U.S, according to the most recently available data, with more than 2,500 of them in California. Although organic farms still only make up 1 percent of America’s farmland acres.
“We have nominal programs to support farmers converting to organic and that should be expanded, and we should be prioritizing research on organic farming,” said Kendra Klein, a scientific advisor for environmental organization Friends of the Earth. She doesn’t suggest all farmers need to convert to organic, but rather that the U.S. should look to move away from a pesticide-intensive system. ″We need to change the system so none of us is exposed,” she said.