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Pesticides

Definition

Pesticides are used to prevent, destroy, or repel pests. Pesticides are also used as a plant regulator, defoliant or drying agent. Pesticides protect plants against molds, fungi and insects, decrease crop loss and damage and can improve food safety. There are many different types of pesticides used. Herbicides control weeds. Fungicides control mold and fungi. Insecticides control harmful insects. Disinfectants act against bacteria and other disease carrying organisms.

Information

When foods are grown with pesticides, the pesticides can often be found on the food. Some examples are tomatoes, broccoli, apples and grapes. Any pesticide residue left on raw foods is usually removed when the food is washed or peeled. The Food and Drug Administration closely monitors and enforces the amount of residue that can be left on the food. Pesticides can build up in the environment, for example in soil. If pesticides build up in the environment, trace amounts can appear in animal products such as milk, beef and poultry.
Government agencies make sure the pesticides used to grow food will not make people sick. These agencies are the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Safety and Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The EPA looks at data on all pesticides before the pesticides can be used. If a pesticide is to be used on food, the EPA decides how much can be used. The EPA levels protect public health. The FDA makes sure the EPA rules are followed. The USDA enforces EPA rules for meat and poultry. Growers who misuse pesticides can be charged with criminal lawsuits.
The effect of pesticides on children is often a concern for parents. The FDA published a report about pesticide exposure in children and infants through diet. The FDA collected information for 7 years. The report found that pesticide residues on foods eaten by infants and children are almost always well below EPA limits.
Nevertheless, pesticide exposure is still a concern. Many people eat organically grown foods, or foods grown without chemicals, instead of foods grown with pesticides. Organic foods are now sold in most major supermarkets.
The following can minimize the amount of pesticide residues on food:
  • Wash fresh produce before eating it. This includes salad greens, fruits, and sprouts. Vegetables and fruits are rarely washed at the supermarket. Supermarkets may mist the produce but misting does not remove pesticides.
  • Throw away the outer leaves of leafy vegetables such as lettuce and cabbage. Most pesticide residues collect on the surface of produce.
  • Trim fat from meat and remove skin from poultry. Many chemicals used as pesticides are fat soluble, which means that the chemicals can accumulate in the fatty tissues of animals. For example, the pesticide DDT was banned many years ago but residues are still found today in the fatty tissues of animals.
  • Choose produce carefully. Don't pick any that have insect holes, cuts or signs of mold and decaying.
  • For home gardeners, minimize the use of pesticides in the garden.
Low levels of pesticides usually do not pose a health risk. Levels are set far below what is considered safe for the most sensitive part of the population. Pesticides help ensure a safe variety of produce that provide vitamins, minerals, fiber and other important nutrients. Individuals should weigh the benefits and risks and choose what is for them.

Sources

Duyff, R., MS, RD, CFCS. (1996). The American Dietetic Association's Complete Food&Nutrition Guide. Minnesota: Chronimed Publishing.

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