Pesticides: When Killing the Pest Becomes the Plague
How Can We Minimize or Avoid Exposure to Pesticides?
Greek mythology tells the tale of the Trojan horse. The tale describes how the Greeks tricked the citizens of Troy with the gift of this wooden horse. But unknown to Troy, the horse was filled with an elite troop of Greek soldiers. The people of Troy wheeled the giant horse into their city thinking it a great prize. In the process, they unwittingly aided in their own destruction.
Today, commercially grown produce, grain, meats, dairy products, etc. are that Trojan horse. Every day we unwittingly eat foods that are tainted with pesticides. And these toxins are waging war on our health!
Pesticide is a generic term that refers to any chemical or agent used to destroy pests. Thus, “pesticide” may refer to insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, or anything used to kill whatever pests are present. These pests may be insects, worms, molds, mildews, bacteria, weeds, and even mice, rats and gophers.
But think about it. If pesticides are designed to kill living organisms, what happens when we bite into an apple, plop a grape or strawberry into our mouths, or eat anything that has been sprayed with a pesticide? What happens to us? What effects are pesticides having on our health?
How Widespread Is the Use of Pesticides?
Unless you live in a more rural setting, you may not realize how widespread the use of pesticides has become. Virtually every crop that’s commercially grown is sprayed or treated with some form of pesticide. This includes fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, etc. According to Michael Crupain, M.D., M.P.H., Director of Consumer Reports’ Food Safety and Sustainability Center, “We’re exposed to a cocktail of chemicals from our food on a daily basis.”
Just think, the seemingly healthy greens in your salad can also hide dangerous amounts of chemicals! In the US alone, we use more than a billion pounds of pesticide each year. Currently, there are about 20,000 products on the market with formulas that span more than a thousand chemicals. When tested, the average American contains residue from 29 different pesticides in our bodies.
Fortunately, since 1996, when Congress passed the Food Quality Protection Act, pesticide residue on produce has declined in the US. But the amount of residue and its potential impact on our health is still alarming. One problem is that over a third of all produce tested in the US has residue from two or more pesticides. The interaction of these chemicals within the human body is unknown.
How Pesticides Hurt Us
Various pesticides use different means to kill the pests they are targeting. Some use a nerve-gas-like chemical to disrupt the neurological function of the pest. One type of pesticide, organophosphates, was developed and used as nerve gas during World War II. Others throw a pest’s key hormones into unbalance. And others prevent a weed from being able to absorb necessary trace minerals from the soil.
The problem is that whatever pest is being targeted is generally mingled in with the crop that eventually lands on our table. This includes any and all commercially grown or processed foods that are non-organic. Pests also eventually adapt to whatever pesticide is being used and become resistant to it. So, new pesticides must be developed and applied, which compounds the chemicals bombarding our food and our bodies.
How Pesticides Affect Our Health
Pesticides enter and damage the human body through a variety of means: eating foods treated with pesticides; drinking water that is contaminated from runoff; through exposure to pesticides that come into contact with the skin; and by breathing in pesticide particles.
The CHAMACOS Study that was released a few years ago followed hundreds of pregnant women who lived in Salinas Valley, California, a rich agricultural area. Up to a half-million pounds of organophosphates have been sprayed on all of the crops of this valley each year.
The study observed the pregnancies, births and development of these children through age 12 to determine the effects of pesticides on their health. So this was an extensive research project. The study revealed:
- Shorter pregnancies
- Poorer neonatal reflexes
- Lower IQs and cognitive function
- Increased risk of attention problems
Research on Dursban, a pesticide widely used to control household pests in the 90s, also showed similar effects on children. And these studies only represent two primary products. We lived in Texas during the 90s. I now remember (with remorse) buying Dursban to control fleas, fire ants and roaches in our yard. (That product never worked very well.)
In Argentina, where massive exposure to pesticide glyphosate in herbicide has occurred, miscarriages, infertility, and birth defects have skyrocketed. In the village of Malvinas Argentinas, the miscarriage rate is 100 times the national average and birth defects are the number one cause of death among children under one year.
Also, much data is available from studies of farmworkers who handle pesticides regularly. The link between these serious health issues and pesticides is undeniable. Babies and small children are especially susceptible to the negative health effects of pesticides. Toxins remain in their systems longer than with adults and children are more vulnerable to these toxins because their organs are still developing.
The President’s Cancer Panel wrote a report in 2010 on the topic of environmental cancer risks. In that report they warned, “The entire U.S. population is exposed on a daily basis to numerous agricultural chemicals. … Many of these chemicals have known or suspected carcinogenic or endocrine-disrupting properties.”
- Food allergies
- Alzheimer’s and memory loss
- Cancer (especially breast, prostate and ovarian cancer)
- Developmental disorders in children such as autism and ADHD
- Obesity (due to hormonal imbalances)
- Parkinson’s disease
- Infertility in men and women
- Birth defects
- ADHD in kids
- Immune system damage
- Low IQ in kids
- Respiratory problems
Use of pesticides year after year permeates our soil and enters our drinking water through runoff. Authorities warn that even miniscule trace amounts of these chemicals are harmful to humans. A study that focused on the product Roundup was found to be “toxic to human DNA even when diluted to concentrations 450-fold lower than used in agricultural applications.”
What’s even more disturbing is that some foods have been genetically modified to contain pesticides within their own DNA!
Also, follow the downstream effects of pesticides. A hayfield is sprayed with pesticide. When harvested, the hay is bailed and fed to cattle. The cattle ingest the pesticide and pass it along to us in the form of meat, milk, cheese, and so on. The same can be said for pork, chicken, and a host of other food products.
How Can We Minimize or Avoid Exposure to Pesticides?
There are several things you can do to avoid or minimize your exposure to pesticides. And these measures are especially important if you are pregnant or have children at home.
1. Eat organic fruit, vegetables, dairy and meats.
By definition, organic foods must be free from use of synthetic or chemical pesticides and are non-GMO (genetically modified). Most grocery stores stock organic foods nowadays. True, organic food is more expensive, but it’s not as costly as it once was. And considering the alternative health problems, eating organic foods is much cheaper.
Local farmer’s markets and specialty markets also offer great selections of organic foods. And finally, why not grow your own? Veggies and herbs grown in the backyard or on the windowsill connect you with nature’s bounty — and you can create healthy, clean, and inexpensive food sans pesticides. Then you know exactly what you’re getting.
2. Avoid the “Dirty Dozen!”
Some of your favorite smoothie staples could contain a serious dose of pesticide Not exactly the healthy drink you were going for. As of this year, strawberries have officially dethroned apples (which have ranked number one for the past five years) as the dirtiest piece of produce.
The Environmental Working Group has identified a list of produce that routinely contain more pesticide than any others. The 2016 list in order of contamination includes:
- Sweet bell peppers
- Cherry tomatoes
Unfortunately, the use of these pesticides that make it onto our plates is totally approved by the USDA. So if you want to avoid them entirely, your best bet is to stick to exclusively organic fruits and veggies. (Did you know that organic fruit also has more antioxidants?)
4. Wash your produce.
While peeling or washing produce may remove some pesticide residue, it cannot remove all of it. At the same time, washing produce well under running water is a good practice. Using a vegetable brush on harder produce like carrots and potatoes will help too.
5. Pay attention to the country of origin.
Where fruits and vegetables were grown is important in determining the relative safety of eating them due to types and concentrations of pesticides . Studies measuring the amount of pesticide residue are available to help us determine the safest countries to buy from. For instance, for low pesticide residue buy apples grown in New Zealand and asparagus, cabbage and broccoli from Mexico or the US. By law, produce stickers must divulge the country of origin.
6. Look for natural substitutes for getting rid of pests.
This applies to your personal home applications of pesticides. There are numerous more natural and viable methods for getting rid of unwanted pests than reaching for the chemicals. Some of these are as simple as cutting some herbs and placing them on your window sill.
Across America, confusion reigns in the supermarket aisles about how to eat healthfully. One thing on shopper’s minds: the pesticides in fruits and vegetables. Spinach, grapes and strawberries are some of the worst pesticide offenders. Other regular items in your shopping cart such as tomatoes, apples, celery and peaches have all been found to contain a variety of killing chemicals.
And what do you put on your salad? It’s a chemical cocktail of pesticides. The most important thing is to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables, eating organic whenever possible. Organic is always the best choice because it is better for your health, the environment, and the people who grow our food. Hopefully this article can help you save money while still looking out for your well-being.
So, now that this culinary Trojan horse has been exposed what will you do? The above list of nasty side effects associated with exposure to pesticides should serve as a wakeup call. Are you still skeptical? Then eat only organic foods for the next 30 days and see if you don’t feel better.