How to safely consume food that has been grown with pesticides

October 9, 2015

Pesticides help assure an abundant food supply, but there is some concern that their overuse may adversely affect human health and the environment. Here are some tips for eating food that may have been grown with the use of pesticides.

How to safely consume food that has been grown with pesticides

Are pesticides safe?

The question is a little like asking if medicines are safe. It depends on which medication, in what dose, how it is taken, by whom and for what reason. So it is with pesticides. It depends on how they are used. Because high doses of certain pesticides have been linked to health problems in ­animals, it is not surprising that North ­Americans are concerned that residues of them in foods we eat could cause birth defects, neurological diseases and even cancer.

  • Food surveys find that North Americans actually have very low overall exposure to pesticide residues. And the level of that exposure has been declining in the last few years and will likely decline further.
  • One reason is that newer pesticides tend to break down more quickly in the environment, often before food crops are harvested. And new agricultural approaches such as integrated pest management (IPM) can reduce pesticide use even more.
  • IPM refers to the appropriate use of insect traps, genetically modified crops, crop rotation, natural insect predators and more specific and powerful pesticides to control pests.
  • The small but growing market for organically grown foods also lowers the use of synthetic pesticides.

Protecting infants, children and women

Certain populations may be more susceptible to pesticide residues in food.

  • Infants and children tend to consume large amounts of single foods such as apples and bananas, and they take in more food per body weight than adults — after all, their bodies are small and they're growing rapidly.
  • A child who eats potatoes can get, in theory, sick from pesticide residues, even if the level is safe for adults.
  • Canada passed a Pest Control Products Act in 2002, and this legislation strengthens protection for Canadians' health — especially children — and improved the post-registration controls on pesticides.
  • Another population group about which too little is known: pregnant and breast-feeding women. When women nurse their infants, studies show, they pass along small amounts of potentially toxic compounds such as PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) to their infants, although scientists emphasize that the many benefits of breast-feeding still far outweigh any risks.
  • There is also concern that certain pesticides that mimic the major female hormone estrogen can disrupt endocrine systems, damaging reproductive health. Some critics of the pesticides believe these so-called estrogen disruptors are behind a worldwide drop in sperm production. Other experts contend that the amounts in food are minute and safe.

How pesticides are regulated

In both the United States and Canada, pesticides are among the most strictly regulated chemical products. Federal agencies, along with state and provincial counterparts, monitor the levels of pesticides in animals, people and the environment. They approve them only if the levels of residues in the resulting food crops are a fraction of the level that is safe for laboratory animals. Does that mean that we know that all the pesticides and other chemicals used in agriculture have no health consequences for food consumers? Absolutely not. There may be subtle effects in humans that show up only after years of exposure and may never be linked to pesticides.


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