Every year, the USDA tests up to 20 different kinds of produce for pesticide residues—the results of which form the basis of the Environmental Working Group's (EWG) highly influential Dirty Dozen List—produce items that are best to buy organic whenever possible.
This year, the USDA took on its first herb, cilantro—and the findings are sobering enough to send any guacamole-and-salsa lover straight to the organic cilantro, the one with the #9 coded twisty-tie. (EWG will release this year's updated lists on Monday, with conventional cilantro making its Dirty Dozen debut.)
Here are the stats
Of 184 samples tested (81 percent of them U.S.-grown, 17 percent imported), 94 percent had at least one pesticide residue; 44 percent had residues of at least one pesticide not approved for use on the crop—the highest level of unapproved pesticides EWG pesticide analyst Chris Campbell said he'd ever seen in USDA testing. (The fungicide quintozene, for example, was found at 0.3 parts per million, well over the 0.1 ppm limit set for tomatoes.)
Thirty-seven percent of the samples had residues of the organophosphate (OP) chlorpyrifros—in at least one case, at three times the EPA's limit. (Ongoing research has linked low-level OP exposure in fetuses and young children with developmental problems; some forms are being phased out while limits on others have been reduced, according to Campbell, who says it's a partly voluntary process for manufacturers.)
Of six organic samples tested, only one tested for unapproved pesticide residues (other than remnants of long-banned DDT, which persists in the environment). It's "not atypical" to find very small levels of residues on organic produce, often from spray drift or contact contamination at packing houses, Campbell says.
Although EPA officials last week expressed concern about the illegal use of pesticides—and said the agency would investigate why this happened—they also downplayed risks, citing small amounts of cilantro generally eaten, and mostly low levels of residues found.
But mounting recent research, including three studies published in April in Environmental Health Perspectives, have linked even low levels of pesticide exposure in fetuses and young children to lower IQ and ADHD diagnoses later in life.
What's more, washing didn't remove residues from cilantro and unlike some other fruits and vegetables, herbs can't be peeled or scrubbed. (It's always a good idea to wash food well, says Campbell.)
Campbell dismisses official's suggestion that farmers confused cilantro with parsley, for which more pesticides are approved. "They planted it; they know what it is," he commented. "They either didn't pay attention or they didn't care."
I'm not OK with these kinds of mistakes, by which consumers can unknowingly expose our children to harmful toxins. It's unsavory enough to ponder all the pesticides sprayed on U.S. food crops that the EPA has approved as "safe" without worrying that producers may be ignoring what rules are in place.
I read medical studies nearly every week linking environmental toxins with an increasingly long list of health conditions. As the Mississippi threatens to overflow its banks and flood neighboring communities with toxic runoff, then flow out to create what's predicted to be the Gulf of Mexico's largest Dead Zone ever, we need to demand alternatives to our overuse of agricultural—and other—toxic chemicals. And invest more in sustainable, nontoxic organic farming—both at the store, and by speaking out for major changes in the upcoming 2012 Farm Bill!