Report calls out worst produce for pesticides—strawberries, spinach top list

Pesticides residues are found on about 70% of tested produce; new research suggests this exposure could impact fertility

Just when you thought it couldn't get any harder to eat healthy.


Turns out those nutrient packed foods we're all told to eat—such as strawberries and spinach— are also consistently tainted with potentially harmful pesticides. Both foods top the "Dirty Dozen" list released today by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which analyzed federal data on pesticides in produce.

EWG, which examined tests done over the past few years by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, reports almost 70 percent of the produce sampled by the feds had pesticide residues.

Some were worse than others: "More than 98 percent of samples of strawberries, spinach, peaches, nectarines, cherries and apples tested positive for residue of at least one pesticide," according to the report.

For strawberries, which topped the Dirty Dozen list, about one-third of the samples contained 10 or more pesticides. Pesticides tainted a whopping 97 percent of the samples of spinach, which was second worst according to EWG.

Other produce on the "Dirty Dozen":

  • Nectarines
  • Apples
  • Grapes
  • Peaches
  • Cherries
  • Pears
  • Tomatoes
  • Celery
  • Potatoes
  • Sweet Bell Peppers

"If you are going to buy some things organic, this is a helpful, clear list of those with highest residues on them," said Sonya Lunder, a senior analyst with EWG, which releases the list annually.

In all the USDA found 230 different pesticides and compounds formed when pesticides break down in their more than 38,000 samples.

Instigating infertility?

It's difficult to say how much these residues on produce may harm people. Pesticides come in many forms—some are highly toxic, some not as much—and chemicals can have different effects at different doses.

Also, produce can have complex mixtures of different chemicals. Studies of people who work with pesticides, and are chronically exposed, have linked exposure to respiratory and memory problems, depression, cancer, birth defects and brain problems.

Lunder said there are certain pesticides, such as the organophosphate pesticide chlorpyrifos, that are showing up on produce and are widely considered toxic. After several studies linked the chemical to impaired brain development and behavior in children, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency during the Obama Administration proposed banning the chemical, however, new EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, cancelled the ban.

The EWG report pointed to a new line of research on pesticide residues linking the exposure to infertility. In January, a study of 325 women undergoing infertility treatment found women who ate two or more servings per day of produce with pesticide residues were 26 percent less likely to have a successful pregnancy than women with less pesticide exposure.

"These data suggest that dietary pesticide exposure within the range of typical human exposure may be associated with adverse reproductive consequences," the authors wrote.

In 2015, scientists found men's intake of pesticide-tainted produce was linked to lower semen quality.

It's not entirely clear how pesticide residues could impact fertility, however, in animal studies, exposure to low doses of pesticide mixtures early in pregnancies "increases embryonic cell death and inhibits its normal cell division ultimately resulting in fewer live born pups," said Jorge Chavarro, a researcher and associate professor at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who was the senior author of the study that linked pesticide residues to fewer successful pregnancies in women.

"Something similar may be happening in humans," he said.

Keep eating your fruits and veggies

Lunder stressed that eating fruits and vegetables is important and, while avoiding pesticides isn't easy, buying organic will certainly lessen your exposure.

She added that avoiding pesticides is especially important when women are pregnant, planning to get pregnant or parents are feeding kids.

EWG also lays out the "Clean Fifteen" —those produce least likely to have pesticides.

So here's a good start for your next grocery list:

  • Avacados
  • Sweet Corn
  • Pineapples
  • Cabbage
  • Onions
  • Sweet Frozen Peas
  • Papayas
  • Asparagus
  • Mangoes
  • Eggplant
  • Honeydew Melon
  • Kiwi
  • Cantaloupe
  • Cauliflower
  • Broccoli

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