How safe is your produce?
Study: Some residual pesticides on produce unsafe to eatFebruary 18, 1999
Web posted at: 1:25 p.m. EST (1825 GMT)
NEW YORK (CNN) -- Eating fresh fruits and vegetables may be good for your health, but some may contain levels of residual toxic pesticides that can be particularly dangerous to children, according to study findings announced Thursday.
Researchers who examined 27 foods found that some of the produce had residual levels that were too high to be safely consumed by young children.
The study by Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports magazine, is one of the largest ever to examine pesticide residues on produce, and was done to fulfill a 1996 federal mandate.
In its announcement, Consumers Union said it didn't want to scare parents, but rather to help them make more informed decisions. The group said it also wanted to send a "simple message" to produce growers.
"Kids are entitled to safe fruits and vegetables," said Rhoda Karpatkin, president of Consumers Union. "Parents do their job when they tell (children) such foods are good for them ... Food growers should do their jobs by using only pesticides that are safe."
Most pesticide residue within legal limits
Almost all pesticide residues were found to be within legal limits, said Dr. Edward Groth, adding: "But does it mean they're safe? No."
"It's too easy for a child to get too much pesticide residue from their daily diet," said Groth, director of Technical Policy and Public Service for Consumers Union.
In studying the 27,000 samples of domestic and imported fruits and vegetables, the CU researchers looked at data gathered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Toxicity scores, based on a Toxicity Index (TI) created by the researchers, were computed for 27 foods.
The study was based on the latest science available, rather than scientific models, officials said. The goal was to see if the government's accepted pesticide residue levels were safe for consumption by adults and children.
The Environmental Protection Agency responded to the report by noting that "the U.S. food supply is still the safest in the world and the benefits of eating a balanced diet outweigh any risks."
"EPA is in the process of implementing the Food Quality Protection Act (of 1996)," the agency said.
"Once in effect, the new law will provide the public with the strongest protections ever against harmful levels of pesticides, and it will be especially protective of the diet of children and infants."
Many imports safer than domestic produce
Contrary to what many people might believe, imported foods don't necessarily have higher pesticide levels.
"Two out of three times, the opposite was true," Groth said.
Concerns about pesticide levels are not just limited to possible cancer links, said Nancy Metcalf, assistant editor of Consumer Reports. Rather, today's concerns are about the neurological damage that pesticides can cause, because many pesticides are designed to kill insects by attacking the nervous system.
This puts the nervous systems of children at particular risk, because they are smaller than adults, Metcalf said.
"Their nervous systems are changing and developing extremely rapidly," Metcalf said. "And ... they just don't eat what (adults) do," because they tend to eat more fruits and vegetables.
Officials said pregnant women should be especially careful of what they eat, because of the risk of harming a developing fetus.
It's still healthy
Washing and peeling fruits and vegetables doesn't get rid of all pesticides, she added, because some pesticides permeate the product.
The researchers stress that consumers should not reduce consumption of fruits and vegetables, even for small children. The benefits of eating the foods outweigh the risks associated with pesticide residue, they said.
Consumers Union advises people to lobby grocers or produce suppliers, urging them to buy fruits and vegetables grown without high-risk pesticides. Such consumer demands could eventually force growers and produce buyers to make available a wider selection of safe produce.
The Consumers Union study was conducted after President Bill Clinton signed the Food Quality Protection Act in 1996.
The act mandated a review of how the entire population -- from infants to adults -- tolerates pesticides used in growing produce.
Consumers Union said it plans to recommend that the Environmental Protection Agency reexamine accepted residual levels of pesticides on produce, particularly the pesticide methyl parathion.
Methyl parathion residue was found frequently on foods popular among growing children, including apples, grapes, peaches, pears and green beans.
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