(Posed 6/13/11 on Sustainablog. For links to my posts on various sites click here)
One of the best things about living in a developed country in the modern world is that we have year-around access to delicious and health enhancing fruits and vegetables a remarkably affordable prices. Just in my 56 years there has been a dramatic increase in the availability and diversity of produce, and many examples of dramatic improvement in taste. But sadly, there are far too many people who are not taking nearly as much advantage of all this progress as they could be. One reason is that food companies have become so skilled at making tempting snack food and fast food options, but the other major reason is that criminal groups like the Environmental Working Group (EWG) manage to scare people away from buying fresh produce by publishing their annual "Dirty Dozen" list. Apples topped the list. I won't even provide a link to this bit of rubbish. The best advice is to completely ignore it!
The Source of the Real Data Behind ThisThe data on which the EWG's list depends is produced by the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Each year the USDA scientists gather thousands of fresh and frozen produce items from stores and other commercial outlets. They take them into labs, wash them like you would at home, and then grind them up to test them for residues of chemical pesticides (including natural products and synthetic products). They also test for important, known, break-down products (metabolites) of the chemicals of greatest potential concern. The technology for doing this is extremely advanced and can detect chemicals at levels that are so low, they might be a million times below a dose that would matter.
Each year USDA releases this database to the public. It contains more than millions of rows of data, because it came from thousands of samples tested for hundreds of individual pesticides. Most of the rows of data say, "no detection." Not surprisingly, most people in the press and elsewhere only read the written summary which the USDA also provides. The EWG also obviously only considers the written summary as they intentionally ignore the valuable information which is in the raw data. They really don't do much "work" at all.
Here is the kind of information that EWG should be considering when making their list - if they were interested in having any credibility with scientists:
1. Which specific pesticides were detected?To understand risk it is necessary to know two things: "what is the hazard?" and "what is the exposure?" Different chemicals differ dramatically in their properties and in whether they are hazardous in various ways. Pesticides themselves differ in acute toxicity by as much as 5,000-fold from a classic, old, organophophate to the dozens of modern pesticides whose toxicity is so low that labs can't feed enough to a rat to kill it. But the EWG treats every "residue detection" the same as if what it is and what we know about it does not matter. These omission is extremely irresponsible. It would be like telling someone that our country is infested with snakes but not saying which ones.
2. What quantity of each pesticide was detected?The second bit of information needed to quantify "risk" is to know how much "exposure" is involved. Electricity is an extremely hazardous thing, but we do a great job of preventing exposure and so only a handful of people are killed or injured each year even though we surround ourselves with electrically powered devices (like the one you are using right now). The USDA provides this critical bit of information and also how the parts per million or parts per trillion detected compares to a very conservative "tolerance" that the EPA bases on detail analysis of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of safety testing effort. In the 2009 data that was just released, there were only 0.3% of samples where the detection was higher than the tolerance (and the tolerance is set 100 times lower than the actual level that would have an effect). The report effectively says, "America's farmers are doing a remarkably responsible job of getting our food grown without putting us at any risk from pesticides."
MotivesIt is always chancy to assign motives to someone you don't even know, but in this case I think it is pretty obvious. This is about fundraising for an organization that has no product to sell except fear. It would be completely legitimate for a group of States Attorneys General to file a class action lawsuit on behalf of all the people who have needlessly died from cancer and other diseases - deaths that could have been prevented if people were not scared away from eating fruits and vegetables that contain so many disease-fighting components.
On-the-whole, the press has failed to do it's homework on this issue. Bottom line, ignore the report and its endless regurgitation from other sources. Then do your friends and family a favor by explaining why the EWG's "analysis" is so deeply flawed. The length and quality of their lives are at stake.
Apple image from Muffet. My Website is Applied Mythology. My email is email@example.com. You can find more detailed information at the links below:
When Fear Wins: Fallout From the Dirty Dozen List
Two Radically Different Views of Celery
Two Examples of Safety Improvement: Automobile Travel and Agricultural Pest Control
My Dirty Dozen List