Extension Educator – Health & Human Sciences
Purdue Extension Elkhart County
March 22, 2021
Much Ado About the “Dirty Dozen”
Annually, the “Dirty Dozen” list makes headlines. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) produces a list they claim has the highest number of pesticides based on their analysis of USDA data. Unfortunately, this list creates unnecessary panic leading people to believe that conventional forms of produce are “dirty” and potentially harmful.
Pesticides are used in conventional and organic farming. Pesticides protect crops from weeds, insect and animal infestations, as well as fungal diseases. Pesticides require approval before being used by farmers. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates all pesticides through a rigorous process that requires the product to demonstrate it is safe if used correctly.
When considering any substance's safety, it is important to understand what is known as a “dose-response relationship”. Almost every substance — even water or oxygen — can be toxic at some level. There is a dose level for every product that will not produce a response in a living organism.
The EPA sets tolerance levels for pesticides. These levels state the amount of residue that is allowed and has been determined not to harm human health based on how much exposure a person is likely to have. Tolerance levels are generally set 10 to 1,000 times lower than those that produced no adverse effects during testing.
The USDA regularly tests foods at multiple locations nationwide to check the type of pesticide and amount to see if the pesticide residue is below the tolerance level. The USDA’s 2019 Pesticide Data Program Annual Summary showed 99 percent of sampled products had pesticide residues below EPA tolerances.
Generally, the amount of residue on our food is minimal and has a very low risk on our health based on the amount of residue and amount of fruits and vegetables we eat every day. For example, one woman would need to eat 850 servings of apples in one day to be at risk of any pesticide residue. Visit the pesticide residue calculator to see how many servings of fruits and vegetables a man, woman, or child could consume and still not have any adverse effects from pesticide residues. Go to https://www.safefruitsandveggies.com/pesticide-residue-calculator/ to learn more.
The “Dirty Dozen” does not provide information about how much of any of the pesticides are detected on the product or how much risk they have on our health. Health experts emphasize that conventionally grown and organic produce is safe for adults and children. Only 1 in 10 adults and children in the U.S. consume enough fruits and vegetables. Adults and children should be eating more fruits and vegetables, not less. A diet rich in fruits and vegetables is associated with a reduced risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.
The next time you shop for produce, take anything you like, regardless of whether it is organic or conventional. Remember to always wash your hands before, during, and after preparing food and rinse your produce under plain water to get rid of bacteria and residue before eating.