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Should I be concerned about pesticides in the food my child eats?
Yes. Pesticide residues are often found on produce, and fruits and vegetables are an important part of your child's diet.
Pesticides protect crops from damage, which helps keep groceries affordable. But research shows that pesticides also contribute to a wide range of health problems, including cancer, lung disease, reproductive problems, and possibly disorders of the endocrine and immune systems.
Animal testing indicates that pesticides can cause permanent changes in brain chemistry that may lead to behavioral disorders, learning disabilities, and even long-term damage to the brain and nervous system.
Pesticide exposure can affect your child's health today and in the future. In fact, some effects may not become apparent until later in life.
Are children more vulnerable to pesticides than adults are?
Yes. Children tend to eat a limited number of foods, which can increase their exposure to specific pesticides. They also eat more food relative to their body weight than adults do.
Children may also absorb pesticides more easily. And because their gastrointestinal tract is still developing, their bodies may be less capable of breaking down toxins. Finally, pesticides can block absorption of the nutrients that are vital to healthy growth and development.
Keep in mind that eating food isn't the only way your child can come in contact with pesticides: They can also get into drinking water.
And if you use pesticides in your home or yard, that's another way your child will be exposed. You can even track pesticides into your home on the soles of your shoes. Then your child can ingest the chemicals if he plays on the floor or puts something from the floor into his mouth, for example.
(Pesticides can also cross the placenta, so pregnant women need to take care to minimize exposure.)
Aren't there regulations to protect my child from pesticides in food?
In the United States, existing regulations are intended to do just that. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets limits on the amount of pesticides that may be used on crops. The limit is based on how toxic a particular pesticide is, how much residue will remain on the crop, and how much of the crop a consumer is likely to eat.
The Food Quality Protection Act, passed in 1996, requires that the residue levels of pesticides be safe for babies and children, taking into account children's special sensitivity to pesticides. However, under certain circumstances – like in the case of economic hardship to the farmer – the EPA can authorize the use of pesticides that don't meet safety standards.
Some consumer advocacy groups believe that limits on pesticides should be stricter to protect children.
While federal regulations have been gradually prohibiting the most dangerous pesticides, more remain in use. In addition, tests have found that some produce contains high levels of pesticides that have long been banned in the United States because these chemicals are still in the soil. And when farmers plant in contaminated soils, they often end up with contaminated produce.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Pesticide Data Program tests foods for pesticide residues. According to the program's annual report, 64 percent of the fruits and vegetables – both fresh and processed (including baby food) – tested in 2010 had detectable pesticide residues. Low levels were found in eggs, oats, catfish, and drinking water.
The USDA emphasizes that these foods are safe to eat. Pesticide residues were largely within the limit deemed acceptable by the EPA.
Why do fresh fruits and vegetables have higher residue levels than canned?
Foods grown for processing don't need to look appealing, so they normally aren't sprayed as much before harvest. And when foods are processed, they're often peeled, washed, or heated, which removes many pesticide residues.
Should I cut down on the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables I feed my toddler?
No. Don't let a fear of pesticides make you serve less produce. Fruits and vegetables are an important part of a healthy diet for every child.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) points out that the negative impact of not including fruits and vegetables in your child's diet is far greater than any potential risk from pesticides at the levels found in produce. And there are things you can do to reduce the amount of pesticides your child consumes without restricting produce in his diet.
What can I do to protect my child from pesticides in food?
These simple steps can greatly reduce the amount of pesticides in your family's food:
- Peel fruits and vegetables, and remove the outer leaves of vegetables like lettuce and cabbage.
- Scrub (under running water) all fruits and vegetables that you don't peel. Cleaning products specifically designed to wash produce may also help.
- Some foods – like strawberries, grapes, broccoli, lettuce, and spinach – are more difficult to wash. Soak these briefly, then rinse.
- Choose produce without mold, bruising, and decay. These are likely to harbor more pesticides.
- Trim the fat off meat and remove the skin from poultry. Pesticides (and other environmental chemicals) are often concentrated in the fat and skin of poultry, meat, and fish.
- Consider buying organic produce, especially foods your child eats a lot of or items on the "Dirty Dozen" list (below).
- Look for locally grown produce. Fruits and vegetables that are grown far away require after-harvest pesticides and waxes to help them survive the long trip. And produce that has to travel is often picked before ripening, which reduces flavor as well as nutrients.
- Buy produce in season. Although it seems like a treat to buy juicy, red strawberries or tomatoes in the dead of winter, keep in mind that food grown out of season usually comes from another hemisphere. Again, this produce will be picked earlier and probably contain more pesticides.
- Serve a wide variety of food, especially produce. A varied diet limits repeated consumption of the same pesticide.
Avoid the "Dirty Dozen"
When purchasing and preparing produce, keep in mind the Environmental Working Group's "Dirty Dozen". This list of the fruits and vegetables with the highest – and lowest – levels of pesticide residue is based on test results from the United States Department of Agriculture.
As of 2019, these are the 12 fruits and vegetables with the highest levels of pesticide residue: strawberries, spinach, kale, nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery, and potatoes.
These had the lowest levels of pesticide residue: avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, frozen sweet peas, onions, papayas, eggplants, asparagus, kiwis, cabbages, cauliflower, cantaloupes, broccoli, mushrooms, and honeydew melons.
This doesn't mean that you need to ban apples from your shopping cart, but you may not want to rely on them solely to meet your child's fruit requirements. Introduce your child to many different kinds of fruit, including those with low pesticide residue, like kiwi and papaya. And when you do serve apples that aren't organic, wash them thoroughly or peel them.
Is organic produce worth the additional cost?
That's up to you. Two recent research reviews found no compelling evidence that organic foods were nutritionally better than nonorganic foods. Eating organically grown foods may reduce your exposure to pesticides, but they have the same nutritional value as their conventionally grown counterparts. Also, some organic meat (like pork) doesn't have the antibacterial properties that make it less likely for bacteria to grow.
But a study done in 2008 found that when children switched to a diet of organic food, the amount of pesticides in their urine dropped to nearly undetectable levels. And some studies also show that organic fruits and vegetables actually are more nutritious because they contain more vitamin C and antioxidants, which may help prevent heart disease, than nonorganic fruits and vegetables. For example, one study found that organic strawberries have 8.5 percent more antioxidants than nonorganic fruit.
If you choose to buy organic produce, try to buy it directly from the producer – there's a good chance it'll be cheaper. Look for organic growers at your local farmer's market, farm stand, or food cooperative.
And if you have the outdoor space, consider growing some of your own organic fruits and vegetables. Gardening is also a great way to teach your child about nutrition.