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Kale, Strawberries, and Spinach Top List as Report Shows Nearly 70% of US Produce Contain Dangerous Pesticide Residue

A study found 225 pesticides in widely-purchased fruits and vegetables, including some chemicals that have been banned by the European Union but remain on the market in the U.S.

The Environmental Working Group found that 70 percent of produce in the U.S. contains pesticides. (Photo: Doug Waldron/Flickr/cc)

The majority of conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables contain pesticide residues that are not eliminated even after washing and peeling the food, scientists revealed Wednesday.

The findings came in an annual report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), the Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce. The study includes analysis of more than 40,000 samples of produce including kale, apples, spinach, and other popular fruits and vegetables that Americans buy every day. Pesticides were found in nearly 70 percent of the non-organic foods the study included.

The samples EWG analyzed had been tested by the Department of Agriculture (USDA) itself. The government found 225 different pesticides on popular fruits and vegetables.

Strawberries, spinach, and kale were among the most-contaminated produce according to EWG's list of the "Dirty Dozen." Among the 12 fruits and vegetables found to contain the most residues, several tested positive for two or more pesticides. Some of the kale samples contained as many as 18 different chemicals.

"We were surprised kale had so many pesticides on it, but the test results were unequivocal," said EWG toxicologist Alexis Temkin, who suggested that shoppers purchase organic versions of the Dirty Dozen, if possible.

Many of the pesticides detected by EWG have long been banned in the European Union and have been the subject of concern at the EPA—but the U.S. has failed to take the chemicals off the market.

Nearly 60 percent of kale samples contained the carcinogen DCPA, also known as Dacthal, which the EU took out of circulation a decade ago. DCPA was the most commonly-found pesticide in U.S. produce.

Natalie Bennett, a British politician representing the Green Party, pointed to EWG's study as a reason to avoid a post-Brexit trade deal with the U.S. and retain strict food safety rules in her country.

The American Academy of Pediatricians Council on Environmental Health advises limiting exposure to pesticides during pregnancy and in early childhood as much as possible to curb the risk of neurological disorders, leukemia, and other diseases that the chemicals have been linked to.

"Even low levels of pesticide exposure can be harmful to children," said pediatrician Dr. Philip Landrigan, in a statement. "When possible, parents and caregivers should take steps to lower children's exposures to pesticides while still feeding them diets rich in healthy fruits and vegetables."

Avocados were ranked the "cleanest" fruit on EWG's "Clean 15" list, followed by sweet corn, pineapples, frozen sweet peas, and onions. Less than one percent of conventionally-grown samples of avocados and corn were found to contain pesticides.

"We definitely acknowledge and support that everybody should be eating healthy fruits and vegetables as part of their diet regardless of if they're conventional or organic," Temkin told the Guardian. "But what we try to highlight with the Shopper's Guide to Produce is building on a body of evidence that shows mixtures of pesticides can have adverse effects."

In addition to educating the public about the presence of pesticides in their food, EWG has also fought against the lack of access to healthy and safe food for lower-income Americans.

In December, the group protested the Trump administration's support for legislation to enrich the wealthiest farmers in the country with taxpayer-funded subsidies while cutting SNAP benefits—which many low-income Americans can use to buy organic produce.

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