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Apples may top pesticide list, but everyone agrees on one point

June 14, 2011|By Marissa Cevallos, HealthKey / For the Booster Shots blog
  • Though apples were ranked number one on a list of pesticide-tainted fruits and vegetables this week, the apple industry says the actual levels of the chemicals are safe.
Though apples were ranked number one on a list of pesticide-tainted fruits… (David Karp )

Apples are getting a lot of flack in headlines and news reports after topping a list of pesticide-tinged fruit and vegetables, ominously nicknamed the dirty dozen. The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization that compiles the list from USDA data, announced Monday that pesticides were found on 98% of the apples the USDA tested.

But the apple industry says that the levels of these pesticides fall within safe ranges and that cutting fruit and vegetables from your diet is a much riskier health move than consuming trace amounts of pesticides.

The U.S. Apple Assn. said in a statement Monday:

“Of the over 700 apple-samples that were tested by the USDA, the vast majority fell well below EPA approved safety levels. … The ‘list’ does not pay attention to the actual levels of residues in the various foods which are within those tolerance (safe) levels, but simply states that residues were detected.”

The Pesticide Action Network helpfully provides a list of pesticide residues found on apples, with icons to indicate whether the pesticides are known carcinogens or are linked to developmental problems in infants and children. The most recent data on the site are from 2005.

As the apple association points out, the EPA is the agency tasked with assessing what’s safe and what’s not. So let’s take a closer look at thiabendazole, the first pesticide on the list. The EPA states in a fact sheet that the fungicide is "used to control a variety of fruit and vegetable diseases such as mold, blight, rot and stains caused by various fungi” and can be used post-harvest on a variety of fruits and vegetables as a dip or spray.  

The pesticide is thought to be carcinogenic, according to the EPA, when at doses high enough to disturb the thyroid hormone balance. It was found on about 88% of the apples in the data cited by the Pesticide Action Network.

In a small serving of domestic, conventionally grown (not organic) apples, the average amount of thiabendazole was 42.5 micrograms, according to the Pesticide Action Network. 

That’s well below the EPA levels of concern, which range from 667 micrograms for a child to 23,333 micrograms for an adult male, and with different levels in between depending on whether the pesticide is consumed every day or for a short period of time. However, at least one apple tested was found to contain 700 micrograms of thiabendazole.

The next most common pesticides on apples, diphenylamine (DPA) and acetamiprid, were also present in levels far below the EPA threshold of concern.

Exposure can add up, of course. But not even EWG believes pesticides are a reason to cut out fruit and vegetables. The group said in a news release Monday:

“The health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure, and EWG strongly recommends that everyone follow USDA’s recommendation to eat five servings of fruits and vegetables every day.”

And on that, all sides can agree.

But, just to be on the safe side the EWG says, choose food from its “Clean 15” list — which is led by onions, sweet corn, pineapples and avocado. Doing so could lower the volume and types of pesticides consumed. For the Dirty Dozen — including celery, strawberries, peaches and spinach — the group recommends buying organic.

The apple industry says fruit and vegetables lovers don’t have to be that picky:

“American consumers can be confident when eating or serving apples —whether organic or conventional— that they are enjoying a safe, nutritious, healthy and delicious home-grown food produced with pride by the U.S. apple growers and the apple industry.”

As renowned nutrition expert and author Marion Nestle points out on her blog, Food Politics: “If ever there was a situation where more research was needed, this is it.”

healthkey@tribune.com

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