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Strawberries ranked No. 1 on ‘Dirty Dozen’ list of fruits and veggies

The list highlights the fruits and vegetables most likely to contain the highest amounts of synthetic pesticide residues. Then there’s the “Clean Fifteen” list, led by avocados.

More than one-third of strawberry samples analyzed in 2016 contained 10 or more pesticide residues and breakdown products.
REUTERS/Thomas White/Illustration

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) released its annual “Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce” on Tuesday.

Strawberries top the guide’s “Dirty Dozen” list — the fruits and veggies most likely to contain the highest amounts of synthetic pesticide residues. At the other end of the rankings were avocados, which lead the “Clean Fifteen” list — the fruits and veggies least likely to be contaminated.

The purpose of the EWG guide is to help shoppers minimize their exposure to toxic pesticides without reducing their consumption of fruits and vegetables. EWG is a nonprofit, nonpartisan environmental organization.

“It is vitally important that everyone eats plenty of produce, but it is also wise to avoid dietary exposure to toxic pesticides, from conception through childhood,” said Sonya Lunder, a senior analyst with EWG, in a released statement.

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“With EWG’s guide, consumers can fill their fridges and fruit bowls with plenty of healthy conventional and organic produce that isn’t contaminated with multiple pesticide residues,” she added.

Buying organic produce is, of course, no guarantee of avoiding synthetic pesticides altogether — in part because fruits and vegetables grown organically can become contaminated by past pesticide use or by pesticide “drift” (sprays blown in from adjacent nonorganic farms). But the potential for pesticide exposure through the consumption of organic produce is significantly lower.

Where the data came from

EWG researchers based this year’s lists on annual data gathered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 2016 on 38,800 samples of 47 different kinds of fruits and vegetables. Before the produce was tested, it was washed or peeled to imitate its “real-world” use by consumers.

Almost 70 percent of the samples of conventionally grown produce tested in 2016 were positive for one or more of 230 different pesticide residues. In 99.5 percent of those samples, the pesticide residues were below the levels considered safe by the Environmental Protection Agency, according to the USDA.

As I’ve noted here before, however, the safety of those levels is highly contested, particularly in terms of their possible health effects on children.

Concerns about those effects led the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) to issue a policy statement in 2012 that advised parents to educate themselves about the relative pesticide content of various foods — including using the EWG’s lists — and then to shop appropriately. The AAP cited research linking early childhood pesticide exposure to “pediatric cancers, decreased cognitive function and behavioral problems.”

The rankings

Here are the EWG’s 2018 lists:

Dirty Dozen

  1. strawberries
  2. spinach
  3. nectarines
  4. apples
  5. grapes
  6. peaches
  7. cherries
  8. pears
  9. tomatoes
  10. celery
  11. potatoes
  12. sweet bell peppers

Clean Fifteen

  1. avocados
  2. sweet corn
  3. pineapples
  4. cabbages
  5. onions,
  6. sweet peas
  7. papayas
  8. asparagus
  9. mangoes
  10. eggplants
  11. honeydews
  12. kiwis
  13. cantaloupes
  14. cauliflower
  15. broccoli

Additional findings

This year’s EWG “Shopper’s Guide” also highlights these key findings:

  • More than one-third of strawberry samples analyzed in 2016 contained 10 or more pesticide residues and breakdown products.
  • More than 98 percent of samples of strawberries, peaches, potatoes, nectarines, cherries and apples tested positive for residue of at least one pesticide.
  • Spinach samples had, on average, almost twice as much pesticide residue by weight compared to any other crop.
  • Avocados and sweet corn were the cleanest. Less than 1 percent of samples showed any detectable pesticides.
  • More than 80 percent of pineapples, papayas, asparagus, onion and cabbages had no pesticide residues.

FMI: You’ll find more details about pesticides and specific fruits and vegetables on the EWG website.