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Pesticides in Food

By Lawrie Mott

The average American now eats 26 pounds more fresh fruits and vegetables per year than ten years ago. The typical produce section currently stocks over five times the number of items displayed a decade ago.; The increased availability and variety of fresh fruits and vegetables is, in part, due to the extensive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Yet residues of these agricultural chemicals can remain in our food. The fruits and vegetables in your supermarket may contain invisible hazards to your health in the form of residues to pesticides .

What Goes Wrong?

In the summer of 1985, nearly 1,000 people in several Western states and Canada were poisoned by residues of the pesticide Temik in watermelons. Within two to twelve hours after eating the contaminated watermelons, people experienced nausea, vomiting, blurred vision, muscle weakness and other symptoms. Fortunately, no one died, though some of the victims were gravely ill. Reports included grand mal seizures, cardiac irregularities, a number of hospitalizations, and at least two stillbirths following maternal illness.2

During 1986, the public grew increasingly concerned over the use of the plant growth regulator daminozide (Alar) on apples. Primarily used to make the harvest easier and the apples redder, Alar leaves residues in both apple juice and applesauce. The outcry led many food manufacturers and supermarket chains to announce they would not accept Alar-treated apples.

Also in 1986, approximately 140 dairy herds in Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Missouri were quarantined due to contamination by the banned pesticide heptachlor. Dairy products in eight states were subject to recall. Some milk contained heptachlor in amounts as much as seven times the acceptable level.3 Those responsible for the contamination were sentenced to prison terms.4

The potential risks posed by cancer-causing pesticides in our food are over one million additional cancer cases in the United States population over the next 70 years. "

Several years earlier, it was the news media rather than the regulatory agencies that alerted the public to high levels of the pesticide EDB in muffin and cake mixes, cereals, and citrus.

Given these incidents, it is not surprising that three out of four consumers consider pesticides in food a serious hazard, according to a 1987 food industry survey.

Glimpses at the Pesticide Burden

The National Academy of Sciences issued, in 1987, a report on pesticides in the food supply. On the basis of data in the study, the potential risks posed by cancer-causing pesticides in our food are over one million additional cancer cases in the United States population over the next 70 years.6.

Although some have argued that this theoretical calculation is excessively high, the number was based on the presence of fewer than 30 carcinogenic pesticides in our food supply (many more pesticides applied to food are carcinogens) and does not consider potential exposure to carcinogenic pesticides in drinking water.

Each year approximately 2.6 billion pounds of pesticides are used in the United States.7 Pesticides are applied in countless ways throughout the United States, not just on food crops. They are sprayed on forests, lakes, city parks, lawns, and playing fields, and in hospitals, schools, offices, and homes, and are contained in a huge variety of products from shampoos to shelf paper, mattresses to shower curtains.

The extent of contamination of our food is unknown. The Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) monitors our food supply to detect pesticide residues. Between 1982 and 1985, the FDA detected pesticide residues in 48 percent of the most frequently consumed fresh fruits and vegetables.

This figure probably understates the presence of pesticides in food because about half of the pesticides applied to food cannot be routinely detected by FDA's laboratories, and the agency samples less than one percent of our food.8

Bringing Poisons Home in the Grocery Bag

Imported products pose a unique hazard to the safety of the American food supply. Imported fresh fruits account for 25% of the total U.S. supply, and imported fresh vegetables comprise approximately 6% of the nation's supply. The use of pesticides on food grown in other countries is not governed by U.S. regulations but instead by the laws of the nation producing the food.

Many food exporting nations in the developing world lack strict pesticide regulations and farmers are often untrained in proper agri-chemical use. Furthermore, pesticides banned from use in this country, such as DDT, DBCP, heptachlor, and dieldrin, may still be used overseas. American consumers can be exposed to residues of banned chemicals in the imported foods from some nations.

But the fact that natural carcinogens are in our food instead makes the need for pesticide regulation far more critical. "

A February 1987 EPA report, entitled Unfinished Business, ranked pesticides in food as one of the nation's most serious health and environmental problems.9 Many pesticides widely used on food are known to cause, or suspected of causing, cancer. To date, EPA has identified 55 pesticides that could leave carcinogenic residues in food.6 Other pesticides can cause birth defects or miscarriages. Some pesticides can produce changes in the genetic material, or genetic mutations, that can be passed to the next generation. Other pesticides can cause sterility or impaired fertility.

Risk Estimations from Ignorance

Under today's scientific practices, predictions of the potential adverse health effects of chemicals on humans are based on laboratory testing in animals. Unfortunately, the overwhelmming majority of pesticides used today have not been sufficiently tested for their health hazards. The National Academy of Sciences estimated, by looking at a selected number of chemicals, that data to conduct a thorough assessment of health effects were available for only ten percent of the ingredients in pesticide products used today.10

This situation has occurred because the majority of pesticides now available were licensed for use before EPA established requirements for health effects testing. In 1972, Congress directed EPA to reevaluate all these older chemicals (approximately 600) by the modem testing regimens. Through re-registration, EPA would fill the gaps in required toxicology tests. By 1986, however, EPA still had not completed a final safety reassessment for any of these chemicals. Roughly 400 pesticides are registered for use on food, and 390 of these are older chemicals that are undergoing re-registration review.

To make masters worse, scientists are uncovering new types of adverse health effects caused by chemicals. For example, a few pesticides have been found to damage components of the immune system--the body's defense network to protect against infections, cancer, allergies, and autoimmune diseases.'2 Yet testing for toxicity to the immune system is not part of the routine safety evaluation for chemicals.

In short, pesticides are being widely used with virtually no knowledge of their potential long term effects on human health and the human population is unknowingly serving as the test subject.

The lack of health effects data on pesticides means that EPA is regulating pesticides out of ignorance, rather than knowledge. This poses particularly serious consequences for EPA 's regulation of pesticides in food. Pesticides may only be applied to a food crop after EPA has established a maximum safe lever, or tolerance, for pesticide residues allowed in the food. However, EPA's tolerances may permit unsafe levers of pesticides for five reasons:

(1) EPA established tolerances without necessary health and safety data.

(2) EPA relied on outdated assumptions about what constitutes an average diet, such as assuming we eat no more than 7.5 ounces per year of avocado, artichokes, melon, mushrooms, eggplants or nectarines, when setting tolerance levers.

(3) Tolerances are rarely revised when new scientific data about the risks of a pesticide are received by EPA.

(4) Ingredients in pesticides that may leave hazardous residues in food, such as the so-called "inert" ingredients, are not considered in tolerance setting.

(5) EPA's tolerances allow carcinogenic pesticide residues to occur in food, even though no "safe" level of exposure to a carcinogen may exist.

Monitoring With Eyes Shut

The EPA is not solely responsible for the flaws in the federal government program to protect our food supply. The FDA monitors food to ensure that residue levels do not exceed EPA's tolerances. Food containing pesticide residues in excess of the applicable tolerance violates the food safety law and FDA is required to seize this food in order to prevent human consumption.

However, FDA is not always capable of determining which foods have illegal pesticide residues. For instance, FE)A's routine laboratory methods can detect fewer than half the pesticides that may leave residues in food. Some of the pesticides used extensively on food that cannot be regularly identified include alachlor, benomyl, daminozide and the EBDCs.

Furthermore, FDA's enforcement against food with residues in excess of tolerances is ineffective: according to a 1986 General Accounting Office report, for 60 percent of the illegal pesticide residue cases identified, FDA did not prevent the sale or the ultimate consumption of the food.8

Don't Worry, Though

Pesticide proponents believe that the public should not be concerned with residues occurring in food below tolerance limits. Yet the gaps in health effect data for pesticides mean that EPA lacks the evidence to guarantee that tolerances protect consumers.

Pesticide users also argue that without agricultural chemicals, food supplies would dwindle and prices would skyrocket. However, the success stories of growing food without pesticides are increasing. In some cases, food cost may be slightly higher, but consumers may be willing to pay more for safer t is far better to have a regulatory system that attempts to prevent human disease before it occurs. "

The issue of natural carcinogens in our food supply is frequently presented by the industry as the reason not to be concerned about pesticides in food. The primary basis of this information is two articles by Dr. Bruce Ames in Science. His argument is that the risks from natural carcinogens are far greater than those posed by pesticides, and therefore regulation of pesticides is unnecessary.

But the fact that natural carcinogens are in our food instead makes the need for pesticide regulation far more critical. If a background of cancer risk exists, we should not be adding additional risk in the form of synthetic chemicals.

Furthermore, we cannot control or regulate natural carcinogens. But we can regulate pesticides. It is nonsensical, whether you are a scientist or not, to suggest that you can ignore the risks of dangerous chemicals added to your food because there may be other dangerous substances in your food that nature put there.

Preventing Things From Going Wrong

A more fundamental issue is the problem of not having all the scientific answers about pesticides in food. Some argue that because no evidence exists linking human cancer with pesticides in food, we should not be concerned about pesticides. But why should we wait for such evidence? It is far better to have a regulatory system that at tempts to prevent human disease be fore it occurs. Because of the lack of scientific certainty, government regulatory programs must err on the side of protecting public health.


1. Bashin, Bryan, 1987. The freshness illusion. Harrowsmith, January/February: 41-50.

2. California Department of Health Sciences, Office of the Director. February 3, 1986. Memorandum: Request for reevaluation of aldicard (Temik).

3. Peterson, Cass. "Heptachlor find causes milk recall." Washington Post, March 11, 1986.

4. Anonymous. "Three receive prison terms in heptachlor contaminated feed case." Pesticide and Toxic Chemical News, July 27, 1987.

5. Food Marketing Institute. 1987. Trends: Consumer attitudes and the supermarket. Washington DC: Food Marketing Institute.

6. National Academy of Sciences. 1987. Regulating pesticides in food: The Delaney paradox. Washington DC: National Academy Press.

7. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Pesticide Programs. September, 1986. Pesticide industry sales and usage 1985 market estimates (Table 4). Washington DC.

8. U.S. General Accounting Office. 1986. Pesticides: Need to enhance FDA's ability to protect the public from illegal residues. Washington DC.

9. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 1987. Unfinished business: A. comparative assessment of environmental problems. Washington DC.

10. National Academy of Sciences, National Research Council. 1984. Toxicity testing: Strategies to determine needs and priorities. Washington DC.

11. U.S. General Accounting Office. 1986. Pesticides: EPA's formidable task to assess and regulate their risks. GAO/RCED-86-125. Washington D.C.

12. Olson, Leon. 1986. The immune system and pesticides. Journal of Pesticide Reform 6(2~:20-25.

Citation for this article: Mott, Lawrie, 1988. "Pesticides in food " Journal of Pesticide Reform, Vol 8, No. 1, Spring 1988, pp 36-38.

Copyright 1988 Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides.

Reprinted with permission.

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