Tools for Avoiding Pesticides: “The Dirty Dozen” and “The Clean Fifteen” 

It’s not easy to avoid pesticides in our food. Fortunately, we have help.

The public interest advocacy organization Environmental Working Group, or EWG, has been reporting on the dangers of pesticides in our foods for 30 years.  

Their role, as they define it, is shining a spotlight on outdated legislation, harmful agricultural practices and industry loopholes that pose a risk to our health and the sustainability of our environment.   Alexis Temkin, Ph.D., EWG toxicologist, describes the situation this way: 

“Despite the abundance of science linking exposure to pesticides with serious health issues, a potentially toxic cocktail of concerning chemicals continues to taint many of the non-organic fruits and vegetables eaten by consumers.” 

Two of EWG’s most well-known tools are a list of produce items with highest pesticide content (“The Dirty Dozen”) and a list of the safest (“The Clean Fifteen”).  

This year, blueberries and green beans made the Dirty Dozen list.  As they report in EWG’s 2023 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce:  

Both blueberries and green beans – 11th and 12th, respectively, on this year’s Dirty Dozen – had troubling concentrations of organophosphate insecticides, pesticides that can harm the human nervous system. Nine out of 10 samples of each of the popular foods had residues of pesticides – with some showing traces of up to 17 different pesticides.   

Nearly 80 percent of blueberry samples had two or more pesticides. Phosmet was detected on more than 10 percent of blueberry samples and malathion on 9 percent. Both are organophosphates that are toxic to the human nervous system, especially children’s developing brains. In 2015, malathion was classified as probably carcinogenic to humans by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.  

More than 70 percent of green beans had at least two pesticides, with a combined 84 different pesticides found on the entire crop. Six percent of samples showed residues of acephate, a toxic pesticide the Environmental Protection Agency banned for use on green beans more than 10 years ago. Green beans also had traces of several pesticides banned in the European Union but allowed in the U.S.  

Washing Your Veggies 

EWG recommends washing all vegetables to remove remaining dirt, microbes and yes, surface pesticides. But that may not be enough to protect you: 

…washing your fruits and veggies, with or without a commercial produce wash, won’t get rid of all of the pesticide residues on them. When testing for pesticides, the FDA washes and peels fruits and veggies just like you would, and more than 93 percent of the conventionally grown apples tested still had pesticides on them after being washed.

The EWG recommends that consumers buy organic versions of items on the Dirty Dozen list and choose either conventionally grown or organic versions of Clean Fifteen items.  

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