(CNN) — Blueberries, beloved by nutritionists for their anti-inflammatory properties, have joined fiber-rich green beans on the “Dirty Dozen,” this year’s list of non-organic produce with the most pesticides, according to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit environmental health organization.
In the 2023 Produce Pesticide Buyer’s Guide, researchers analyzed data from tests on 46,569 samples of 46 fruits and vegetables conducted by the US Department of Agriculture. Each year, USDA staff analyze a rotating list of products that wash, peel or scrub fruits and vegetables as consumers would before examining food for 251 different pesticides.
As in 2022, strawberries and spinach continued to hold the top two spots on the Dirty Dozen, followed by three vegetables: kale, collards, and mustard. Peaches, pears, nectarines, apples, grapes, bell and hot peppers, and cherries were listed next. Blueberries and green beans ranked 11 and 12 on the list.
A total of 210 pesticides were found in the 12 foods, according to the report. Kale, collard greens and mustard greens contained the most different pesticides (103 types), followed by hot and bell peppers with 101.
“Some of the USDA tests show traces of pesticides long banned by the Environmental Protection Agency. Much stricter federal regulation and oversight of these chemicals is needed,” the report says.
“Pesticides are toxic by design,” said Jane Houlihan, former EWG senior vice president of research. She was not involved in the report.
“They are intended to harm living organisms, and this inherent toxicity has implications for the health of children, including the potential risk of hormonal dysfunction, cancer, and damage to the developing brain and nervous system,” said Houlihan, who is now director from Healthy Babies, Bright Futures, an organization dedicated to reducing infant exposure to neurotoxic chemicals.
The “15 Clean Foods” Option
There are good news. Concerned consumers may want to consider choosing conventionally grown vegetables and fruits from the EWG’s Clean 15, a list of crops that tested lowest in pesticides, according to the report. Nearly 65% of the foods on the list had no detectable levels of pesticides.
Avocados topped the 2023 least polluted produce list again this year, followed by sweet corn in second place. Pineapple, onion and papaya, frozen sweet peas, asparagus, honeydew, kiwi, cabbage, mushrooms, mangoes, sweet potatoes, watermelon, and carrots rounded out the rest of the list.
Being exposed to a variety of pesticide-free foods is especially important during pregnancy and childhood, experts say. Developing children need the combined nutrients, but they are also more affected by pollutants such as pesticides.
“Pesticide exposure during pregnancy can lead to an increased risk of birth defects, low birth weight, and stillbirth,” the American Academy of Pediatrics noted. “Exposure in childhood has been linked to attention and learning problems, as well as cancer.”
The AAP suggests that parents and caregivers consult the buyer’s guide if they are concerned about their children’s exposure to pesticides.
Houlihan, director of Healthy Babies, Bright Futures, agreed: “Any option to reduce pesticides in the diet is a good option for a child.”
Blueberries and green beans
Nearly 90% of the blueberry and green bean samples had worrisome findings, according to the report.
In 2016, the last time green beans were inspected, the samples contained 51 different pesticides, according to the report. The latest round of tests found 84 different pest killers, and 6% of the samples tested positive for acephate, an insecticide banned for use on vegetables in 2011 by the EPA.
“A sample of non-organic green beans had an acephate level 500 times higher than the limit set by the EPA,” said Alexis Temkin, an EWG toxicologist with expertise in pesticides and toxic chemicals.
When last tested in 2014, blueberries contained more than 50 different pesticides. Tests in 2020 and 2021 found 54 different pesticides, about the same amount. Two insecticides, phosmet and malathion, were found in nearly 10% of blueberry samples, although levels have been declining over the past decade.
Acephate, phosmet, and malathion are organophosphates that interfere with the normal functioning of the nervous system, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
A high dose of these chemicals can cause shortness of breath, nausea, slowed heart rate, vomiting, weakness, paralysis and seizures, the CDC said. With prolonged exposure to smaller amounts, people may “feel tired or weak, irritable, depressed, or forgetful.”
Why would the levels of some pesticides be higher today than in the past?
“We see drops in some pesticides since the early 1990s when the Food Quality Protection Act was put in place,” Temkin said. “But we are also seeing increases in other pesticides that have been substituted in their place and may not be any safer. That is why there is a push towards a general reduction in the use of pesticides.”
Chris Novak, president and CEO of CropLife America, an industry association, told CNN the report “intentionally misrepresented” USDA data.
“Farmers use pesticides to control insect and fungal diseases that threaten the health and safety of fruits and vegetables,” Novak said by email. “Misinformation about pesticides and various growing methods leads to hesitation and confusion, causing many consumers to skip fresh produce altogether.”
The Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), an industry association, told CNN that emphasis should be placed on complying with legal pesticide limits established by meaningful scientific consensus.
“We all agree that, at best, pesticide residues would be as close to zero as possible and science-based efforts to further reduce residual pesticides should continue,” said Bryan Hitchcock, director of science and technology of the IFT.
Switch fonts, experts suggest
Many fruits and vegetables with higher levels of pesticides are essential to a balanced diet, so stick with them, experts say. Instead, avoid most pesticides by choosing to eat organic versions of the most contaminated crops. While organic foods aren’t more nutritious, most have little to no pesticide residue, Temkin said.
“If a person switches to an organic diet, the levels of pesticides in the urine drop rapidly,” Temkin told CNN. “We see it over and over again.”
If organic isn’t available or too expensive, “I would definitely recommend peeling and washing well with water,” Temkin said. “Stay away from detergents or other advertised items. Rinsing with water will reduce pesticide levels.”
Additional tips on washing produce, provided by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), include:
- Wash hands with warm, soapy water for 20 seconds before and after preparing fresh produce.
- Rinse produce before peeling so that dirt and bacteria are not transferred from the knife to the fruit or vegetable.
- Use a clean vegetable brush to scrub firm produce like apples and melons.
- Blot the product with a clean cloth or paper towel to further reduce any bacteria that may be present.