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Expert Q&A

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Should I avoid the 'Dirty Dozen'?

Asked by Karen C., San Francisco

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What are your thoughts on the latest release of the 'dirty dozen' fruits and vegetables list, released this week by the Environmental Working Group?

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Diet and Fitness Expert Dr. Melina Jampolis Physician Nutrition Specialist

Expert answer

Hi Karen! This is an important question and I will give you my opinion based on my investigation into this question.

My first reaction was fear -- not fear about the health effects of pesticides in our produce, rather fear that Americans would eat even fewer fruits and vegetables as a result of this report.

My second reaction was concern for my 14-month-old son -- would I feed him only organic versions of the dirty dozen based on this report?

To answer that question, I turned to Anne Riederer, adjunct assistant professor of environmental health at Emory University, who has been involved in several research studies examining this question of pesticide exposure in children.

She explained that many pesticides are neurotoxicants, which means that they damage the brain. Therefore, two of the most potentially vulnerable populations are pregnant women and children 6 years old and younger.

There are several large ongoing studies looking at pregnant women and their children as they grow in this age range, and full results have not been published yet. Preliminary findings in one major study in which the women had above average pesticide exposure -- they lived in a farm working community -- did show a significant effect on several markers of brain development in their offspring.

Studies in adults in high-exposure populations, such as farmers who frequently apply pesticides, have shown an increased risk of neurodegenerative disease, as well as wheeze and other indicators of poor lung function.

However, the risk could be due to inhaled pesticide in addition to consumed pesticide, so it is not at all clear how much risk there is to the general population based on consumption of pesticides in produce.

Dr. Riederer, who is currently conducting a study in which everything that children consume during a four-day period is assessed to quantify total daily exposure, notes that in her research, exposure to certain pesticides in house dust may be equal to or greater than the exposure from food.

The levels of pesticides allowed on agricultural commodities in the United States are regulated more strictly than the amounts people can spray inside their homes -- this depends entirely on how well people follow the safety instructions on the label.

She went on to say that in her research group, they have also found pesticides in processed foods and foods labeled organic, although they find them in organic foods less frequently than in conventional foods.

The bottom line, in my opinion, is that pesticide exposure may increase risk of disease, but the levels at which this happens are unknown at this time. The benefit of eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables -- which are loaded with vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, antioxidants and fiber and are generally low in calories -- is known when it comes to obesity, heart disease, digestive health, certain causes of blindness, and certain types of cancer.

For pregnant women or children 6 and under, I suggest that you buy organic versions of the dirty dozen if you can. If organic, which is far more expensive in most cases, is not an option, make sure you get a variety of fruits and vegetables to minimize exposure risk, and make sure to limit pesticide use in your household as much as possible to avoid increasing exposure even further.

For adults, in terms of overall health, I am much more concerned about adequate consumption of fruits and vegetables for disease prevention and weight control. Buying organic is a great option if you can afford it, but maintaining a healthy weight has far more profound health benefits based on currently available research.

Follow Dr. Melina on Twitter.

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