Imagine that you’re doing everything you can to eat healthy, including filling your diet with a variety of plant foods. But unknown to you, there are microscopic compounds hiding on what you eat, sabotaging your health on a daily basis.
This is a picture of the impact pesticides in foods can have on you and highlights one very real problem they pose.
Due to mounting evidence of their detrimental effects on human health and the environment, pesticide use has become very controversial. Yet the U.S. alone continues to use around 1.2 billion pounds of pesticides each year.
Even more alarming, over a quarter of all agricultural pesticide use in the U.S. involves pesticides banned in the EU and other countries over toxicity concerns.
There are many voices of concern focused on the dangerous long-term effects of consuming pesticide residue on food. (And rightfully so.)
However, there are several other ways pesticides negatively impact humans and the environment that should also be talked about because most directly relate to our food system.
Here’s a closer look at the big picture of pesticide use and the potential dangers it poses.
What Are Pesticides + Why Use Them?
There are several categories of pesticides but all are designed to kill unwanted pests or halt pathogens. Insecticides kill insects, herbicides kill weeds, fungicides fight pathogenic fungi, and so on.
There are many different applications for pesticides. For example, rodenticides can be used around a home to keep rodents out. DDT (an insecticide) was used in the 1940s to kill mosquitos that were spreading malaria.
However, one of the top uses for pesticides (and the focus of this article) is for agriculture.
Many farmers, especially those farming on a large scale, have come to depend on pesticides. They save on labor and typically allow farmers to get a much larger yield. Most pesticides have been developed to specifically fight the insects or diseases that could take out a whole crop, which helps avoid crop failure.
Large scale farmers tend to use the greatest amount of pesticides. Labor costs make mechanical weeding or integrated pest management difficult because the area to care for is hundreds of thousands of acres.
As a result, conventional farming methods often involve blanketing fields in chemicals. This includes methods like spraying wheat crops with an herbicide at the end of the season to speed the drying process as well as treating crops throughout the growing season.
The Hidden Dangers of Pesticides in Foods
With this massive reliance on chemicals, it’s no wonder there are serious concerns about pesticides in foods.
Larger crop yields and better, less expensive food production may be good things. But there’s mounting evidence that there is a significant hidden cost that comes with them.
Many Pesticides Can Be Acutely Toxic to Workers
Exposure to pesticides through residue is a serious issue (as we’ll get into later), but the dangers of acute exposure often get overlooked.
Most containers of common pesticides have the skull and crossbones symbol on them, indicating how toxic they are. There are safety precautions that are supposed to be followed when applying them. This includes things like wearing protective equipment, not spraying on windy days, etc.
However, this doesn’t mean the precautions are actually followed.
Many farmworkers come from immigrant families. While some have excellent English skills, others don’t. They may not be able to read or understand warning signs and can be pressured to accept unsafe working conditions.
For example, a farmer may be short on time and have workers spray on a day with high winds, even though this is unsafe. Or workers may be sent to work in a field that was just sprayed, despite the fact that the pesticides have not been absorbed yet.
Drift is another issue. It involves pesticides becoming airborne and traveling to an unintended site. This could mean a neighboring field, or it could mean someone’s home, a school, etc.
Another acutely toxic situation is the manufacturing of pesticides. Some studies on workers in India found many cases of neurological, gastrointestinal, cardiorespiratory, and reproductive symptoms during the manufacturing process.
It’s clear that the problem of using these chemicals goes far beyond the fields where they are sprayed.
Detrimental to the Environment
The presence of pesticides in certain foods is a real problem for clean eating. But equally important is the impact these chemicals have on the earth, which is where our food comes from.
Perhaps the first warning bell of the toll of pesticides on the environment was the book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. It led to the eventual ban of DDT in many countries and made many take a closer look at what pesticides were doing to the environment.
One of the biggest problems is water contamination.
Pesticides sprayed on plants can easily leach into groundwater and run off into waterways. In fact, a 2014 study that conducted tests in 38 states in the U.S. found that glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup) was present in the majority of streams and rivers along with 70% of rainfall.
Theoretically, the amount of pesticides in our waterways is within a “safe” level. Yet, there is little research on the long-term effects of chronic pesticide exposure in wildlife (or to humans through drinking or irrigation water).
In fact, research on streams in Germany, Australia, and France found that the biodiversity of insects, amphibians, and birds decreased with pesticide presence, even where pesticide concentrations were deemed to be within a “safe” range.
Involved in Pollinator Loss & Soil Decline
There’s also the huge problem of pollinator decline and the death of beneficial insects.
Insecticides don’t differentiate between beneficial and “pest” insects. This means that non-targeted insects can and do get killed from pesticide use. Ironically, the decline of bees has highlighted just how vital they are to our food system as pollinators.
Another detrimental (and frequently overlooked) aspect of pesticides is their effect on microbes in the soil.
The soil is full of bacteria, nematodes, fungi, and numerous other microbes. Though a few can be considered pathogenic, many are beneficial and essential for healthy soil and healthy plants.
A top argument in favor of pesticides is that they breakdown before the plants are harvested and eaten. This, it is argued, is why pesticides in foods are not a big problem.
But this raises an important question: Where are they broken down?
The answer most often is the soil. Some pesticide residue does get washed away (as discussed), but much of ends up in the soil to either be broken down or to accumulate.
Research indicates that this can change both the microbial activity and microorganism counts in the soil, altering it in unpredictable ways. The effects of this are still to be seen, but it’s rarely good to disrupt a natural ecosystem, especially one in which much of our food is grown.
Overuse Leads to Pesticide Resistance
Yet another negative aspect of frequent pesticide use is something called pesticide resistance.
This refers to the development of “superweeds” as well as insects and pathogens that are resistant to pesticides. It happens because of the continual use of the same pesticides on the same plants (or insects, etc.) on a large scale.
Pesticide resistance is nothing new.
As an example, many countries banned DDT due to its negative environmental impact. However, before the book Silent Spring even came out, mosquitos in Sri Lanka had become largely resistant to DDT, leading to a resurgence of malaria.
What does pesticide resistance mean for the environment and human health?
Instead of tackling the root of the issue (continual pesticide overuse), it typically means the formulation of new pesticides, which often involves the combination of older, more hazardous chemicals. (One such new combination is glyphosate (a potential carcinogen) and 2,4-D (potential carcinogen and endocrine disruptor).)
Another more hidden danger is the fact that overuse of pesticides in agricultural applications can spread into other areas.
A prime example of this is the evidence indicating that insecticide use on farms has contributed to the insecticide resistance of malaria-carrying mosquitoes.
Exposure & Residue May Cause Serious Health Problems
The presence of pesticides in the foods we eat everyday may be the most widespread danger of using them.
Despite the insistence of the FDA and EPA that pesticide residue on produce largely remains within “safe” limits, numerous studies have shown that many of these chemicals are linked to cancer, endocrine disruption, reproductive issues, and developmental problems.
The amount of pesticide residue on a single piece of produce may be small, but how often do you eat?
For most of us, the answer is everyday, which means we are continually accumulating small amounts of pesticides. It’s not hard to see that this has the potential to cause serious health problems down the road.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) puts together one of the most comprehensive reports of pesticide residue on produce every year. Their latest 2021 report found that about 70% of non-organic food contained residue of at least one pesticide (and often several).
This means you are being exposed to pesticides regularly by eating conventionally-grown produce, especially if you eat a plant-based diet.
Even more concerning are studies indicating that children are most at risk for suffering health problems from pesticide exposure (including in the womb). This again calls into question whether “safe” levels of pesticide residue are truly safe- particularly for the most vulnerable.
Worst Pesticides in Foods (& For the Environment)
The list of pesticides with health-harming potential is too long to go into fully, but here’s a look at some of the most common and toxic ones still in use.
Atrazine is a popular pesticide in the U.S., even though it was banned in the EU in 2004. It’s one of the most common toxins in drinking water. Some estimates have found it in almost 90% of drinking water in the U.S.
Used as a weed killer, atrazine is an endocrine disruptor and especially problematic for women. It can cause menstrual irregularities, low estrogen, and possibly fertility issues. Atrazine also has the potential to harm a fetus during pregnancy and cause birth defects.
In the environment, exposure to atrazine can essentially cause male frogs to turn into female frogs. This is potentially devastating for their reproduction (as well as being extremely alarming).
Organophosphates were developed from a formula the Nazis originally intended to use in chemical warfare. They attack the brain and nervous system of both insects and mammals, making them one of the most dangerous pesticides when found on foods.
This type of pesticide can cause convulsions, coma, and death with acute exposure. Chronic exposure may harm brain development and impact fertility.
Chlorpyrifos is a specific organophosphate that is proving to be especially toxic for children. Even exposure to low levels has been linked to learning disabilities, neurological problems, and developmental delays.
In spite of evidence from the EPA itself that “residues of chlorpyrifos on food crops exceed the safety standard,” that same organization has so far refused to ban this pesticide.
The active ingredient in Roundup, glyphosate has come under fire because it has been linked to an increased risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. In fact, the World Health Organization has labeled it as “probably carcinogenic” to humans.
The EPA, however, has declared glyphosate unlikely to be a carcinogen. This was due in large part to unpublished research studies provided by Monsanto (the maker of Roundup), which are unlikely to be impartial.
Glyphosate is most likely to harm those who are spraying it. Food residue has an unknown impact.
2,4-D is a commonly used weed killer. It’s used for farming, landscaping, and forestry and is approved for home use. Listed as “possibly carcinogenic,” 2,4-D was once an ingredient in Agent Orange, the toxic defoliant used in the Vietnam War.
There are studies indicating that 2,4-D may also be an endocrine disruptor.
Recently, the EPA approved a new pesticide (Enlist Duo) that combines 2,4-D and glyphosate. Neither chemical appears to be going anywhere for a while.
Neonicotinoids, or neonics for short, are suspected of playing a large role in the massive decline of bee colonies. They are used as an insecticide and appear to be detrimental to certain non-target insects.
Though much focus has been on neonics and bees, other research indicates that this type of pesticide accumulates in the soil and can also kill invertebrates like earthworms.
Paraquat is a weed killer that is linked to the development of Parkinson’s disease. It was thought to be most dangerous when inhaled, but research indicates that low-level exposure may also increase the risk of Parkinson’s.
It’s banned in China and the EU, but not the U.S.
12 Top Foods to Buy Organic
The dangers of pesticides in foods are very clear, but what is the solution?
As one breakthrough research review has documented, eating organic is likely your best protection right now.
Very few studies have focused on the long-term effects of eating organic vs. conventional food. However, this review conducted in 2019 found “significant positive outcomes” associated with greater organic intake. These positive outcomes included a reduced risk of things like infertility, allergies, birth defects, and certain diseases.
While eating only organic food would be ideal, the cost can be prohibitive.
That’s why the EWG publishes its report each year on which foods have the most pesticides. By at least buying these fruits and vegetables organic, you’ll be able to significantly cut down on pesticide residue in your diet.
- Strawberries (99% of non-organic strawberries had detectable pesticide residue)
- Spinach (76% of samples had permethrin residue, a neurotoxic insecticide)
- Kale, Collard Greens, & Mustard Greens
- Apples (Frequently treated with diphenylamine, a chemical restricted in Europe)
- Bell & Hot Peppers (Contain “concerning” levels of acephate and chlorpyrifos, organophosphate insecticides)
Citrus didn’t make the “Dirty Dozen” list, but the EWG mentioned a concern over the presence of Imazalil, a fungicide and likely carcinogen, in many citrus fruits.
Almost 90% of citrus samples tested positive for Imazalil residue, including over 95% of tangerine samples. It was even detected on peeled oranges.
A Very Real Threat
When all aspects of pesticides are considered, it’s obvious that they pose a very real threat to human health and to the environment. Yet despite many documented negative effects, they continue to be widely used in agriculture and other applications.
This means it’s up to you (once again) to take charge of your own health.
Put simply, the best option is to buy organic as much as possible.
BE CAREFUL About What You Feed Your Body BOTH Ways
You now understand why it’s important to be conscientious of the foods you put into your mouth with pesticides in mind.
However, PLEASE DON’T FORGET that you also feed your body what you apply to your skin!
And even if cosmetics / personal care products use entirely natural ingredients in their formulations, if the products are not “USDA Certified Organic,” that means those ingredients may well have been farmed using pesticides and other potential toxins!
If you’re in the USA, look for the USDA Certified Organic designation on both foods you put into your mouth and products you use on your skin, as this ensures no toxic ingredients are used — AND it ensures the natural ingredients used were farmed without pesticides.
If you are in the market for a highly effective anti-aging cream or facial wash, for example, head to Purity Woods — which provides only USDA Certified Organic cosmetics, meaning no toxic ingredients AND even the ingredients used are raised without pesticides.
The bottom line is, by “cleaning up” what you allow into your body, you’ll be putting less of a chemical load on your body, which has great health benefits. Not only that, you’ll also provide support to farmers who are taking the pesticide load off the land. It’s a win-win!