Illegal pesticides found on US fruits and vegetables

Issue 

A study of US government testing records, Forbidden Fruit, has found that 66 different illegal pesticides were detected in 42 fruits and vegetables over a two-year period from 1992 to 1993. Issued in February, the report, an audit of 15,000 test results by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), found that US residents eat an estimated 900 million kg of produce with illegal pesticides each year.

These findings also indicate the magnitude of the problem for farm workers who are exposed to these dangerous chemicals. In developing countries, pesticides inflict a human toll unimagined in the US — 90% of the estimated 25 million pesticide poisonings annually, and over 99% of the estimated 220,000 deaths, occur in developing countries.

Forbidden Fruit analyses computerised records from the US Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) routine pesticide monitoring program. The report focuses on the 42 fruits and vegetables that respectively make up 96% and 83% of domestic fruit and vegetable consumption.

The core of the analysis is the substantial variance between the illegal pesticides identified by FDA chemists and the pesticides reported as violations of the law by FDA enforcement personnel. The report finds that the rate of illegal pesticides on these heavily consumed fruits and vegetables is 76% higher than reported by the FDA. According to the EWG, this discrepancy points to a serious breach in the government's ability to ensure that the food supply is safe from illegal pesticides.

Over 90% of the violations reported in Forbidden Fruit involve two kinds of illegal pesticides: no-tolerance violations, where the pesticide is found on a crop even though the allowable level for the pesticide on that crop is zero; and over-tolerance violations, where the amount of the pesticide found exceeds the legal limit (or tolerance) for that crop.

The report's key findings include:

  • Many pesticides that have been banned or restricted for health reasons were found illegally on scores of different foods. For example, illegal residues of captan, a probable human carcinogen banned on 30 crops by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for health reasons, were found on 14 crops. Chlorpyrifos (Dursban), a potent neurotoxin heavily used in schools and homes but restricted to use on certain foods to protect young children from additional exposure, was found illegally on 15 crops.

  • Some major fruits and vegetables have very high rates of illegal pesticides. During 1992-1993, one-quarter of all green peas contained illegal pesticides, as did 16% of pears, 12% of apple juice and 12% of all green onions.

  • Some crops from major suppliers have even higher violation rates, including green peas from Guatemala (41% violation rate), strawberries from Mexico (18%), green onions from the US (17%) and head lettuce from Mexico (16%).

  • From one-third to one-half of all pesticide residues detected were illegal. This includes 52% of the detected residues on apple juice, 51% on green peas, 28% on pineapples, 26% on pears and 23% on carrots. EWG maintains that these high rates point toward a potentially high level of illegal pesticide use on these crops that appears to be escaping detection by state enforcement authorities and the FDA.

  • A US resident eating the USDA's recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables per day will eat illegal pesticides in these fruits and vegetables at least 75 times per year. A US resident is at least 15 times more likely to eat an illegal pesticide than to eat from a shipment tested by the FDA.

EWG points out that the FDA's failure to catch illegal pesticide residues stems in part from the agency's lack of legal authority and money to tackle such a huge task, and in part from day-to-day management failures. The FDA does not have a computerised pesticide tolerance database to monitor test results for illegal pesticides. All results are scrutinised by hand, and violations are flagged by a lab technician supposedly familiar with the tolerance limits.
[From US Pesticide Action Network.]

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