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Health impacts of agricultural pesticides

Patrick Feller

Many consumers have become concerned with the health impacts of ingesting residual pesticides used to protect fruit and vegetable. This week on “Take Care,” we talk with Dr. Dave Stone about the health implications of agricultural pesticides.

Dr. Dave Stone is a toxicologist and director of the National Pesticide Information Center, a cooperative effort between Oregon State University and the Environmental Protection Agency.

“When you think about residue on fruits and vegetables, fortunately in the U.S. it’s found in very trace levels, far below what we’d anticipate to be hazardous to health,” says Stone.

The bigger risks associated with agricultural pesticides are to the farm workers rather than consumers who eat the produce.

“The fundamental concept in toxicology, which I think everyone intuitively gets in their own daily life, is that the dose makes the poison,” says Stone.

The typical residue level that’s left on produce is anywhere from hundreds to thousands of times less than what it would take to have any kind of health effect. Most pesticides today are not cumulative and are excreted from the body very quickly.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets what’s called a tolerance, which is the maximum amount of pesticide allowed to remain in or on a food. Tolerances help determine risk and levels of safety for the consumer, as well as regulate the safety of both domestic and imported foods.

Studies have found that the most effective method for the removal of residual pesticides is a 30-second rinse under high pressure water with a vegetable brush to scrub the produce.

“The mechanical action of the brush coupled with the water dislodges two important things. One is pesticide residue, but in my mind the more important thing is microbes,” says Stone.

According to Stone, microbes and pathogens are a bigger risk to the U.S. food supply than chemical residue.

Softer, waxier fruits like peaches and strawberries are more pest-prone. Therefore, relative to other fruits and vegetables, they have higher levels of pesticides. However, this does not increase human health effects.

Many consumers have turned to organic produce as a solution to pesticide concerns.

“The organic industry does use pesticides,” says Stone.

The difference is that organic pesticides have to be of natural origin and cannot be synthetic.

Whether you buy organic produce or not, Stone says that we are always going to be in contact with pesticides due to the important roles that they play not only in agriculture, but also in other areas such as disinfection in hospitals.

“My bottom line is, first of all, don’t panic. There’s a lot of scary information out there that hasn’t necessarily been bedded. The important thing is for you and your family to get a diverse source of foods…and at the end of the day we do have a very reliable and very safe food supply,” says Stone.