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Pass the pesticides.

Pass The Pesticides

If pesticides weren't poisons, they wouldn't kill pests...and we wouldn't worry about eating them with our food.

But they are...and so we do.

Are pesticides dangerous in the amounts we ingest? The FDA says no. The National Academy of Sciences says maybe. Consumer groups say yes.

And while the experts argue, we continue to swallow them with our apples and our spinach, our chicken and our bread. But we don't have to be helpless bystanders. How we select and prepare our foods can make a difference.

Here is a series of questions and answers that should help minimize the risk from pesticide residues.

How serious a problem is pesticides in food? After ranking 29 environmental problems under its jurisdiction, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) concluded that only worker exposure to chemicals and indoor radon pose a greater risk of cancer than pesticides in food. The EPA also rates pesticides a "high risk" for non-cancer risks such as behavioral or nervous system disorders.

And while smoking, drinking, and diet play a more important role than pesticides in the health of the general public, at least we are aware--and have control--over them.

Pesticides, on the other hand, go largely unnoticed. We can neither see nor taste them. Perhaps that's why they generate such fear and concern.

Are some people more at risk than others? Clearly, the farmworkers who mix and apply toxic pesticides are in greatest danger. Children, who consume more pesticides per pound of body weight than adults, are also particularly vulnerable.

"Thousands of America's current preschool children may get cancer during their lifetimes as a result of the pesticides they unknowingly consumed during their first five years of life," says Wendy Rockefeller, President of Mothers and Others for Pesticide Limits.

Which foods are most likely to contain pesticide residues? Meat, poultry, fish, butter, and lard probably contain residues more frequently than fruits and vegetables.

And because we eat so much grain and added fat (like butter and lard), we ingest the greates total amount of pesticides from these foods.(1) (That could change once we've had a chance to analyze newer data.)

Of course, amount isn't everything; some pesticides are more risky than others.

Which foods are cleanest? Legumes (beans and peas) usually register low levels.

Also, "residues are generally eliminated in the extensive processing that is used for...refined sugar and refined vegetable oils, which are virtually residue-free," says Donald Reed, of the FDA's Division of Contaminants Chemistry.

How bad are fruits and vegetables? It's difficult to tell, because the FDA, which has the responsibility to monitor our food supply for pesticide residues, isn't doing a very good job. It doesn't regularly test for about half the pesticides that could be present. And, it doesn't sample randomly.

Take apples, which receive more pesticides per acre than any other major U.S. crop.(2) Routine FDA tests show that about one of every two apples contains residues. But the FDA doesn't routinely test for daminozide, which was found in 83 percent of apples sold in 1986 and early 1987. Daminozide is suspected of causing cancer, and that's bad news for children, who drink large amounts of apple juice. (The EPA estimates that four to eight percent of the crop is now treated with daminozide--down from 25 percent in 1986.)

Here is what else the FDA found in its regular sampling: ] In 1987, all but one sample of cranberries had residues, as did over two-thirds of the strawberries, celery, parsnips, imported grapes, and domestic citrus tested. Citrus tests were done on the unpeeled fruit; had the FDA tested peeled oranges and grapefruits, fewer samples probably would have contained residues. ] Pesticides turned up on more than half the spinach, lettuce, and domestic greens tested. "Levels of pesticide residues are generally higher on leafy vegetables because of their large surface area," explains the FDA's Reed. "Residue levels may not be substantially lowered during kitchen preparation, because leafy vegetables are often uncooked or not thoroughly washed," he adds. ] Imported fruits and vegetables were also a problem. Residues were found on more than half the samples of lemons, oranges, tangerines, raspberries, cantaloupes, honeydews, peaches, nectarines, plums and prunes, cucumbers, eggplants, tomatoes, and peppers.

Can I tell if fruits and vegetables are contaminated just by looking at them? No. But you'd probably be smart to get away from the no-blemishes-is-best way of choosing. That's because greater amounts of pesticides are needed to prevent cosmetic damage. Also, food grown with few or no pesticides may not always look as nice as produce that has been "embalmed" in fungicides and waxes to ensure its good looks and to inhibit mold.

Look at it this way: If the worms won't touch it, should you?

Is imported produce more likely to have pesticide residues? You're probably better off choosing domestic bell peppers, broccoli, cantaloupes, cauliflower, cucumbers, green beans, grapes, and tomatoes. The FDA consistently reports that more imported samples of these fruits and vegetables contain residues.

If you don't know what's what, ask the produce manager. About one-third of the fresh and frozen fruit we eat is imported--much of it during the winter.

Does washing and peeling help? Often, but not always. "If the pesticides are inside the fruit or vegetable, washing or peeling won't help," says Charles Trichilo, former chief of the EPA's Dietary Exposure Branch.

For most produce, washing the outside with a few drops of dishwashing detergent in a pint of water works better than just rinsing with water. (Use a brush, and rinse thoroughly.) Trichilo uses a bar of Ivory soap, since he says it doesn't have the artificial colors and perfumes that detergents do.

Peeling is obviously the most effective way to remove pesticides that are on or in the peel. It's a trade-off, though, since you are peeling away fiber, which may also help reduce your risk of cancer.

What about those new pesticide-and wax-removing washes? Their ingredient lists make them look suspiciously like dishwashing detergent, but they cost up to eight times as much. The producers say the washes are superior because they don't penetrate the skin or leave soapy residues.

"You can be assured that our detergent system is no longer there when you're finished washing," says Don Atkins, who developed "Fruit & Vegetable Wash."

And maybe the wash isn't there, but in an informal test we performed on cucumbers, the wax sure was. What we need are side-by-side tests against everyday dishwashing detergents.

What should we do about waxed produce, then? Peel...if you can tell. Waxes prevent moisture loss, which retards shriveling. "The problem is that the waxes are often mixed with fungicides," says Lawrie Mott, of the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

"Waxes can't be washed off, and can seal in pesticide residues that are already on the produce," adds Mott, author of Pesticide Alert: A Guide to Pesticides in Fruits and Vegetables.

According to Mott, cucumbers aren't the only produce that are waxed. "Thin, less-obvious coatings are often applied to apples, bell peppers, citrus fruits, eggplants, peaches, squashes, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes," she says.

Although federal law requires stores to have a sign on any bulk produce that has been waxed, those signs almost never appear. The FDA says it doesn't have the resources to enforce the law, and cities and states seldom do anything either.

Is my risk greater or less from canned and frozen fruits and vegetables? It's probably less, but there's no way to tell for sure. While some steps in processing (washing and peeling) reduce residues, others (blanching and cooking) can increase them.(3)

Tomatoes, tomato sauces, and tomato pastes are the most popular canned products sold in this country. Buy canned tomatoes grown in the U.S. (the label will tell you if they're imported). That means fewer pesticide residues.

Don't some supermarkets test their produce for pesticides? Yes. Some regional chains (such as Ralphs, Farmer Jack, Fred Meyer, Raley's, Farm Fresh, Bread & Circus, and Andronico's) use private testing companies. NutriClean, the largest, certifies foods that meet its "no detected residue" standard. But don't confuse "no detected residue" with "no residue."

NutriClean tries to test for all pesticides which could be present, at levels well below those allowed by the EPA, but it could miss some. The process does encourage growers to cut pesticide use, though.

What else can I do? Buy organic, or produce grown with Integrated Pest Management (IPM), which minimizes pesticide use. Write Americans for Safe Food (c/o CSPI) for a list of mail-order sources.

Also, don't forget to trim the fat off meat, poultry, and fish, since that's where some pesticides concentrate. (1)J Assoc. Off. Anal. Chem. 69: 146, 1986. (2)Resources for the Future, Overview of Pesticide Use in Apple Production, Wash., D.C., 1988. (3)Nat. Food Processors Assoc., The Effects of Commercial Processing on Pesticide Residues in Selected Fruits and Vegetables, Wash. D.C., 1988.
COPYRIGHT 1989 Center for Science in the Public Interest
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:pesticide residues in food
Author:Lefferts, Lisa Y.
Publication:Nutrition Action Healthletter
Date:Apr 1, 1989
Previous Article:Dairy lightens up.
Next Article:Alcohol deaths: sharing the blame.

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