Summer is the perfect time to indulge in fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables, but lurking on the skins (and in the fruit itself) could be some potentially toxic chemicals: pesticides.
Animal and human studies on individual pesticides have shown that they contribute to an alarming number of healthproblems like:
- Fertility problems
- Brain tumors
- Childhood leukemia
- Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
- Birth defects
- Irritation to skin and eyes
- Hormone or endocrine system problems
- Nervous system damage
Those especially at risk from pesticides are children, whose bodies are still developing, along with pregnant women, whose unborn children are extremely susceptible to damage from these toxic chemicals.
Some argue that the amount of pesticides on produce is minimal, and therefore not enough to influence health, however an increasing number of experts believe that exposure to even small amounts of pesticides over a long period of time can have a negative impact on your health.
For instance, a new study in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that people who had been exposed to even low levels of pesticides were found to be 1.13 times as likely to have Parkinson’s disease as those who had never been exposed.
By eating some of the most-contaminated fruits and vegetables, you and your children are exposed to about 15 different pesticides a day, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a not-for-profit environmental research organization. No one knows for sure what impacts these chemicals that are, by their very nature, designed to kill will have on your health.
Fortunately, by avoiding the most-contaminated produce out there, and concentrating on the least contaminated instead, you can reduce your exposure to pesticides by almost 90 percent, EWG says.
Organophosphates: What You Don’t Know Can Indeed Hurt You
Organophosphates are a group of pesticides that, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), were first developed during the early 19th century. However, their poisonous effects weren’t widely known until the 1930s when the German military developed them for use in World War II as a neurotoxin.
Organophosphate pesticides account for 38 percent of all pesticides in use throughout the world. They kill insects by disrupting their brains and nervous systems — but they can also harm the brains and nervous systems of animals and humans (which is why it is used in nerve gas and other weapons), says the Illinois Department of Public Health.
These chemicals work by stopping a key enzyme in the nervous system (cholinesterase) from working. When this happens, a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine can no longer be properly controlled, which results in nerve impulses remaining active for longer than they should. This over-stimulates the nerves and muscles and results in symptoms like weakness and muscle paralysis, says the EPA.
Over just ten years ago, organophosphates accounted for about half of the insecticides sold in the United States, and about 60 million pounds are used on crops each year. Some of the more well-known organophosphates include diazinon, disulfoton, azinphos-methyl and fonofos.
Diazinon, which was sold in the United States for 48 years, was once the most widely used ingredient in U.S. lawn and garden sprays, with close to 15 million pounds being sold annually. However, due to safety concerns, the EPA ordered that the chemical no longer be used for indoor use by March 2001, and no longer be used for lawn and garden use by June 2003.
Another organophosphate, chlorpyrifos (Dursban), was phased out in 2000 after studies showed children could be particularly vulnerable to harm from exposure.
Pesticides Found in People
A study done ten years ago by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Second National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals, tested thousands of people for exposure to 116 chemicals, 34 of which were pesticides. Of the 34 pesticides, which included organochlorines, organophosphates and carbamates, 19 were detected in the blood or urine of the study participants.
Health Dangers of Organophosphates
These chemicals, which are used as insecticides in homes and offices and for lawns and gardens, in flea treatments for pets and are sprayed onto agricultural crops, have been linked with cancer, decreasing male fertility and Parkinson’s disease. However, no one really know for sure what harm low, long-term exposure to such chemicals could cause. What is known, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health, is that organophosphate poisoning could result in the following issues.
Where are They Found?
If you’d like to limit your exposure to organophosphates, be aware that common sources of these pesticides include:
- Animal growth promoters
- Cattle treatments
- Flame retardants
- Flea treatments for pets
- Gasoline additives
- Household and garden pesticides
- Lice/Nit treatments
- Pesticides for crops–particularly soft fruit, vegetables and grain products
- Rubber additives
- Stablilizers in lubricating and hydraulic oils
- Synthetic additives
- Wood infestation treatments
- Mosquito spraying/fogging
Following are some tips to keep pesticides, including organophosphates, away from you and your family as much as possible:
- Buy certified organic fruits, vegetables and meats (be sure to wash produce, particularly commercially grown produce, thoroughly before eating using a diluted soap solution)
- Avoid the use of toxic pesticides in your home and yard (opt for natural pesticides that you can find in your local health food store instead)
- Don’t use pesticides for aesthetic purposes like killing dandelions in your lawn
- Don’t use chemical bug repellants, flea treatments or lice shampoos
How to Keep Your Food Pesticide Exposure to a Minimum
Contrary to popular belief, simply washing with water and peeling fruit and vegetables is not enough to protect yourself and your family from pesticides. It will reduce the levels somewhat, but it will not eliminate them. In fact, the fruit and vegetable rankings below have taken washing and typical preparation into account (such as peeling of bananas) before being tested for pesticides.
You really don’t want to peel fruits and veggies like apples and potatoes because the skins contain a lot of the nutrients and antioxidants.
The 20 Fruits and Veggies With the MOST Pesticides
These are the ones that you should always buy organic, if possible. If you do buy conventional versions of the following produce, please be sure to wash them thoroughly (organic produce, of course, should also be washed just in case). These are ranked in order by EWG, with the worst of the bunch, peaches, at #1.
- Sweet Bell Peppers
- Grapes (Imported)
- Green Beans
- Hot Peppers
- Grapes (Domestic)
The 20 Fruits and Veggies With the LEAST Amount of Pesticides
According to EWG, the following produce has the lowest pesticide load, ranked in order with the produce with the absolute lowest pesticides first.
- Sweet corn (Frozen)
- Sweet peas (Frozen)
- Winter Squash
- Sweet potatoes
- Honeydew melon
Additionally, mostly organic greens food products that contain organic ingredients are also a safe way to get the high antioxidant benefits of fruits and vegetables.
Occupational and Environmental Medicine March 1, 2007
Environmental Working Group: Food News
U.S. EPA Organophosphate Pesticides
Illinois Department of Public Health: Organophosphates
Pesticides Action Network: Pesticides in People
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