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OP-ED: Pesticides: To eat, or not to eat?

Have you ever taken a bite out of a shiny red apple, and wondered whether or not you’re eating poison?  Many people harbor  serious fears that pesticides may be harmful to them in the amounts that are present in the foods we eat. Is this fear justified?

Concerns about pesticides in produce began to crop up in the late 1900s due to concerns that they might cause cancer.  

In 1989  the Natural Resources Defense Council published “Intolerable Risk: Pesticides in Our Children’s Food,” which discussed the concerns related to the pesticide daminozide, known commercially as “Alar.”  The study’s publication, which reported that Alar caused cancer in lab rats, caused the consumption of apples to decline dramatically, with apple sales dropping by more than 100 million dollars.

The scare was unfounded. It was found later that to match the amount of pesticides lab rats consumed before tumors developed, a person would have to eat 28,000 pounds of apples a day for 10 years straight. Many current fears about pesticides are generally baseless.

Most pesticides used by farmers are regulated by the government through the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and various state monitoring agencies.

The allowable amounts are measured in ppb or ppt, or parts per billion or trillion. Modern pesticides have to pass more than 120 intensive safety tests over 8-10 years before they are approved for use, and only one out of every 20,000 chemicals are approved. Most of the more dangerous pesticides, like organophosphates (which causes paralysis in insects, and are also quite toxic to humans), have been banned from use in the United States.

Furthermore, the National Cancer Institute has concluded there is no scientific evidence that indicates that the allowable amounts of pesticide in food cause cancer in any way. Most pesticides that are used nowadays have little to no toxicity to humans, and are often chemically specific to the bugs they are eliminating.

So, what’s the danger everyone’s nervous about? It’s important to remember that a lot of these materials are poisons, and in excess can be dangerous. Acute overexposure to pesticides can lead to headaches, nausea, nerve, skin, and eye irritation, intense fatigue and even death.

There have also been some alarming studies.

In 2009, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Diseases Registry, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,  found a doubling in brain cancer rates among children in households where pesticides were used.

In 2007, the Public Health Institute, California Department of Health and UC Berkeley School of Public Health all found a 600% increase in autism among children whose mothers were exposed to organochlorine pesticides. Thankfully, these are almost all no longer in use today.

A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine that was undertaken by Harvard University School of Public Health professors in October of 2017, found that women who ate produce generally higher in pesticides, such as strawberries, spinach and peppers, tended to have more difficulty having a baby through in-vitro fertilization. Such women were 18% less likely to get pregnant and 20% less likely to have live births. It  should be noted the above study involved 325 women.

So while in the larger picture, pesticides don’t appear to create a widespread public health problem, there are specific situations where eating food treated with pesticides may be dangerous.

Many people champion organically grown produce as the solution to using pesticides. And while such produce is free of such substances, many other problems plague it, such as rotting, insect damage, and bacterial presence.. According to most scientists, spoilage and infection is far more dangerous than any pesticide presence.

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