Pesticides and your health: How to cut your exposure

Pesticides and your health: How to cut your exposure

Author: Canadian Living


Pesticides and your health: How to cut your exposure

This story was originally titled "Pesticides in Your Produce?" in the April 2008 issue. Subscribe to Canadian Living today and never miss an issue!

Walk into any large grocery store in the country and one of the first things you'll see is rows of fresh produce. It's never been easier for Canadians to meet their quota of five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, even in winter. But while there's no denying the nutritional benefits of biting into a crisp apple or munching on broccoli, many consumers wonder what else they're ingesting along with the good-for-you vitamins and fibre.

In particular, they're concerned about pesticide residue in those rosy-cheeked apples and other produce, and the long-term effects it could have on their family's health. Some studies have linked chronic exposure to pesticides with an increased risk of cancer, birth defects and neurological impairments such as Alzheimer's disease. So what's a health-conscious consumer to do?

You can start by being more selective about the produce you eat. It's possible to lower your pesticide exposure by almost 90 per cent if you avoid "The Dirty Dozen" and eat "The Consistently Clean," advises the Environmental Working Group (EWG).

The EWG, a nonprofit environmental research group in the U.S., published a list based on a five-year analysis, completed in 2005, that shows which foods consistently scored the highest in pesticide levels and toxicity and which scored the lowest. Though it's based on American information, the list (see "The Dirty Dozen," page 2) is still relevant to Canadians, given that 80 per cent of our produce is imported, the majority of it from the U.S. If you don't want to give up peaches, apples and strawberries – all high on the hit list – the EWG suggests replacing them with organic alternatives. But keep in mind, organic does not mean 100 per cent pesticide-free, either.

Page 1 of 3 – find out what fruits and veggies to avoid on page 3!
Reducing the Risk
If you want fewer pesticides in your body – and in the environment – buy organic, says Dr. Kapil Khatter, a family physician in Ottawa and a pollution policy adviser to Environmental Defence, a national research and education group based in Toronto. If you can’t afford organic, buy local produce in season. "We don't have much control over what happens in other countries," says Khatter. "While Mexico, for example, actually has fairly good environmental standards, traditionally they've been worse than we have about enforcing them."

As well, says Henri Bietlot, national manager for the chemical evaluation section in the food safety division of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, we have a great natural pesticide in Canada, called winter. "We don't have to spray at the same level because the pest pressures are less than they are in the southern states, for example."

There are other measures you can take to help limit the amount of pesticides you and your family consume.
• If you can only afford to add a few organic fruits and vegetables to your shopping cart, focus on the ones that your family eats the most. 
Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables to minimize your exposure to any one type of pesticide.
• Consider growing some of your own produce so you have control over what, if any, pesticides are used and the amount.
• While some experts recommend peeling produce to remove pesticides, Bietlot says peeling fruit isn't necessarily going to work. "When you spray an apple tree in the spring, there is no apple on the tree. So, it [the chemical] is actually going to be in the pulp of the apple as opposed to the surface." He recommends washing produce – both conventional and organic – with warm running water to remove bacteria and dirt. "If it helps remove some chemical residue, too, that's a bonus," he says.

The Dirty DozenScore*% with pesticides% with 2 or more pesticides
Sweet bell peppers8681.562.2
Grapes (imported)6884.253.2

The Consistently CleanScore*% with pesticides% with 2 or more pesticides
Sweet corn (frozen)23.80
Sweet peas (frozen)1122.92.3

*Contamination was measured in six different ways and crops were ranked based on a composite score from all categories. The higher the score, the higher the pesticide load. Get the full results of the study at SOURCE: ENVIRONMENTAL WORKING GROUP

Page 2 of 3 – find out all about organic food on page 3!
The bottom line
Most health experts agree that the health benefits of eating more fruits and vegetables – including a lower incidence of some types of cancer and heart disease –  outweigh the potential risks of ingesting pesticide residue. "It's similar to the mercury-in-fish argument," says Khatter. "Mercury contamination in foods like fish raises difficult questions in balancing the health benefits of eating fish against the potentially harmful effects of eating mercury."

The safety debate
Adopting the "better safe than sorry" stance, Canadians are turning to organic food in growing numbers. A recent Nielsen study showed that 34 per cent of us purchase organic foods to avoid pesticides and artificial fertilizers. Yet there is little data on the risks associated with eating fruits and vegetables that contain pesticide residues. And while Canada's top food police – the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) – reported chemical residues in over 22 per cent of both domestic and imported fresh produce in 2004 to 2005, these residues were well within the safety limits set by Health Canada. "To say that our food is laced with pesticides is alarmist," says Henri Bietlot, national manager for the chemical evaluation section in the CFIA's food safety division. 

"Pesticides are one of the most intensely regulated chemicals in society," adds Leonard Ritter, a professor of environmental biology at the University of Guelph in Ontario. Along with Bietlot, Ritter maintains that Canada's conventional food supply is among the safest in the world.

Environmental groups and health advocates aren't convinced. The David Suzuki Foundation ( says Canadian standards are generally weaker than those established in the U.S., Australia or the European Union. "It is difficult to believe that fruits and vegetables in Canada are so much cleaner than produce in the U.S. or U.K., especially when a substantial proportion of Canadian produce is imported from the U.S.," states a David Suzuki Foundation report, "The Food We Eat: An International Comparison of Pesticide Regulations." There's also concern that women who are pregnant or breast-feeding, infants and young children may be more vulnerable to the effects of pesticide residues. "No one contests that these things are poisons," says Dr. Kapil Khatter, a family physician. "The big question is exactly how much is harmful?" Another key concern, says Khatter, is how even low-level exposure to many different chemicals may affect our health. "Up until now a lot of the standards didn't take into account that we are exposed to more than one pesticide at a time and that they may interact."

The lowdown on organics
Although organic produce contains fewer pesticide residues than regular produce, it may not be pesticide-free. "'Organic' is not a food safety claim," says Laura Telford, executive director of the Canadian Organic Growers. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency defines organic produce as fruits and vegetables that are grown without synthetic pesticides, synthetic fertilizers or sewage sludge and haven't been genetically engineered or irradiated. But pesticides are so pervasive in the air, water and ground that no crop can be guaranteed totally free of them, experts say. "Tests have been done in the remote mountains of B.C., and there are pesticides in those lakes," says Telford. "They get there by air currents, by water currents, and there is nothing we can do about it." Still, research has shown that adults and children who eat organic food have lower levels of pesticides in their bodies.

Until recently, consumers have had no protection against false organic claims. But a new labelling system, which goes into effect in December 2008, will put an end to that. Only products that meet strict criteria for organic production will be able to use the new Canadian organic logo – a maple leaf rising above two hilltops.

"The No. 1 problem we have now is keeping up with the demand for certified Canadian organic produce," says Telford. There are fewer than 4,000 organic farmers across the country, and it typically takes three years to complete the transition from conventional crops to organics.

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Pesticides and your health: How to cut your exposure