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Pesticides and Food

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Moving to Protect Youngsters
Under the 1996 Food Quality and Protection Act, designed in part to protect children in particular from the toxic effects of pesticides, the EPA is required to review the safety of about nine thousand existing pesticides in food. As a result of the new law, the EPA recently banned the use of chlorpyrifos, a member of the organophosphate family, from all domestic consumer products. Farmers may still spray crops with chlorpyrifos, but its use will be significantly reduced. The ban won't make for safer imported produce, however. Foods including New Zealand apples, Chilean grapes, and Mexican tomatoes contained the highest chlorpyrifos residues when tested by the USDA between 1994 and 1998, and there's no reason to think that will change any time soon.

A Pesticide Primer

  • Pesticide refers to herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, and other substances that prevent, destroy, repel, or mitigate insects, rodents, weeds, fungi, and microorganisms such as bacteria and viruses. Pesticides also regulate plant growth, defoliate plants, and promote plant death.
  • Since pesticides pose harm to pests, including animals and plants, they are, by definition, risky for humans, too.
  • According to the EPA, about three hundred and fifty pesticides are used on our foods.
  • Drinking water can contain pesticides when the chemicals make their way from nearby farmland to ground water or surface water systems that contribute to a drinking water supply.
Reduce Pesticide Exposure in Children
In spite of their findings that certain foods harbor harmful pesticides, Consumers Union does not recommend banishing fruits and vegetables from the diet. Even with pesticide use, the organization says that the health benefits of produce outweigh the risks from the pesticides they contain. Take the following steps to reduce your child's pesticide exposure:
  • Choose foods with the least risk for harmful pesticides. According to Consumers Union, they include: frozen and canned corn, milk, domestic orange juice and broccoli, bananas, and canned peaches. Avoid riskier foods such as domestic and imported fresh peaches; frozen and fresh domestic winter squash; domestic and imported apples, grapes, spinach, and pears; and domestic green beans.
  • Wash or peel all fruits and vegetables. Remove the outer leaves of leafy vegetables such as lettuce. Use products such as Fit Fruit and Vegetable Wash (Procter and Gamble) and Wash Dem Veggies (Vermont Soapworks) to remove water-resistant pesticides from produce.
  • Eat a wide variety of foods to limit regular consumption of the same pesticide.
  • Buy organic produce, particularly peaches, apples, grapes, pears, green beans, winter squash, and spinach when you are able.
  • Pesticides can be found in meat. When they are, they are most concentrated in the fatty part of the meat, so trim all visible fat and avoid eating poultry skin.
  • Limit home pesticide use and never use products containing organophosphates and carbamates because they can interfere with your child's developing nervous system.
  • Need an exterminator? Find one that practices integrated pest management (IPM) to tame unwanted pests.
  • Check out pest control policies in your child's school or day care facility and urge them to use fewer pesticides.
What about Water?
Is your water safe to drink? Most likely, yes, unless your community is undergoing an outbreak because of contaminated water. Public water supplies contain the chemical chlorine, which, along with water filtration, reduces the levels of most harmful germs, with one exception: Cryptosporidium parvum, a chlorine-resistant organism, can make its way into tap water and cause illness in thousands of people at a time. Symptoms of cryptosporidosis include watery diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and fever. Children and pregnant women are among those at greater risk for cryptosporidosis. When outbreaks occur, boil your water for five minutes or purchase bottled water for drinking instead.

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Copyright © 2002 by Elizabeth M. Ward. Excerpted from Healthy Foods, Healthy Kids with permission of its publisher, Adams Media Corporation.

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