Strawberries remain at the top of the Dirty Dozen list of the EWG Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, with spinach jumping to second place in the annual ranking of conventionally grown produce with the most pesticide residues.
EWG’s analysis of tests by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that nearly 70 percent of samples of 48 types of conventional produce were contaminated with residues of one or more pesticides. USDA researchers found a total of 178 different pesticides and pesticide breakdown products on the thousands of produce samples they analyzed. The pesticide residues remained on fruits and vegetables even after they were washed and, in some cases, peeled.
Nearly all samples of strawberries, spinach, peaches, nectarines, cherries and apples tested positive for residue of at least one pesticide. The most contaminated sample of strawberries had 20 different pesticides.
Spinach samples had an average of twice as much pesticide residue by weight than any other crop. Three-fourths of spinach samples had residues of permethrin, a neurotoxic pesticide banned in Europe for use on food crops – it’s part of a class of pesticides that recent studies link to behavioral disorders in young children. At high doses, permethrin overwhelms the nervous system and causes tremors and seizures. Since 2000, Europe has not permitted any permethrin to be used on food crops. Three other previously undetected fungicides – mandipropam, fluopicolide and ametoctradin, which are used to kill mold and mildew – were found at relatively high concentrations on spinach samples.
DDT, a pesticide long banned in the U.S., also showed up on spinach and very few other crops. Residues of DDT and its breakdown products were found on half of spinach samples. Although DDT was banned in the 1970s, residues remain in the soil and are picked up by spinach grown today.
By contrast, EWG’s Clean Fifteen list of produce least likely to contain pesticide residues includes sweet corn, avocados, pineapples, cabbage, onions, frozen sweet peas, papayas, asparagus, mangoes, eggplant, honeydew melon, kiwis, cantaloupe, cauliflower and grapefruit. Relatively few pesticides were detected on these foods and tests found low total concentrations of pesticide residues on them. Avocados and sweet corn were the cleanest: only 1 percent of samples showed any detectable pesticides. More than 80 percent of pineapples, papayas, asparagus, onions and cabbage had no pesticide residues.
“From the surge in sales of organic food year after year, it’s clear that that consumers would rather eat fruits and vegetables grown without synthetic pesticides,” said Sonya Lunder, an EWG senior analyst. “But sometimes an all-organic diet is not an option, so they can use the Shopper’s Guide to choose a mix of conventional and organic produce.”