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The Dirty Dozen List Explained and What You Should Know About Pesticides

Updated: May 18, 2022

The new Dirty Dozen from the Environmental Working Group came out again this month. In case you're not familiar with what the Dirty Dozen list is, let me explain. Based in Washington, The Environmental Working Group is an organic industry lobbying group that tries to convince the public they need to be choosing organic produce at the grocery store. On their "list" are fruits and vegetables with, according to their findings, the highest amount of pesticide residues.

When the EWG produces their list, they're not giving the whole story and misleading the public. Let me explain.

The EWG list is problematic because they’re deriving detectable pesticide levels without telling how that translates into average amounts that people would eat. Anyone can access the USDA annual Pesticide Data Program document, which is what the EWG does. In that document, there is information on produce samples with detectable pesticides, an average number of pesticides on a single example, the maximum amount found on a single sample, and the total number of pesticides found on any one type of produce. These numbers are not included in the EWG report, and it's a crucial elimination of the facts. The numbers don't mean anything unless you compare them to amounts considered toxic to the individual. In this case, the dose makes the poison. None of this is a big revelation. It is public information that can be accessed. The EWG chooses to overplay the attention it gets, and several news media outlets, including CNN, broadcast the list without accurately reporting the science.

One vital component of all of this is that our modern tools and techniques for pesticide detection are incredibly sensitive and perceive even the smallest pesticide amount on any given piece of produce. This doesn’t mean you need to run out and buy organic produce. The amounts detected are far below what is considered toxic.

Also, pesticides are used on organic produce, but the EWG doesn’t tell you that either. They may claim that they are natural pesticides, but whether a chemical is synthetic or natural doesn't matter. The chemical structure, amount, and reactions in the body determine whether a substance is harmful.

The Environmental Protection Agency has the minimum reference dose (RfD) for pesticides used in farming and production. The RfD is the amount they determined scientifically that a person could ingest every day for the rest of their life without harmful health effects. For example, the EWG detected a range of .005-.15 ppm (parts per million) on strawberries. If you were to eat ½ cup of strawberries, you might ingest (if you didn’t wash the strawberries) .15 milligrams (mg). This amount is 100 times less than the RfD of 1.5 mg.

A fun experiment to try is using the pesticide calculator on the safe fruits and veggies website. It will tell you how much of what type of produce you can eat safely without worrying about pesticide residue. In my case, I chose cherries, and according to the calculator, I could eat 1190 cherries in one day even if they had the maximum amount of pesticides allowed. Assuredly, I could never eat that many cherries in a week, let alone a month.

The bottom line is that all produce is good produce, whether you choose organic or conventional varieties. Washing your fruit and vegetables will decrease residues on the skin and should routinely be done before eating, no matter the source. As Americans, we already don’t eat enough, and it is one of the best choices you can make to better your health. Discouraging the public from choosing what they can afford and raising unfounded fear is a wrong decision.

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