Produce Items May Exceed EPA Standards
By Joby Warrick Washington Post Staff Writer Friday, February 19, 1999; Page A2
The same fresh peaches, grapes and apples that supply vital nutrients for growing boys and girls are also exposing millions of American children to unsafe levels of potentially toxic pesticide residues, a prominent consumers' group said yesterday.
As little as a single serving of some popular fruits and vegetables may contain enough harmful chemicals to exceed government health standards, according to a study by Consumers Union, publisher of the magazine Consumer Reports.
The analysis found consistently high rates of pesticide contamination for seven common types of produce and processed food, and it concluded that children are most at risk – in part because their bodies are more sensitive, but also because they typically consume more fresh fruit per pound than adults.
"Our findings certainly don't mean that parents should stop giving their children plenty of healthy produce," said Edward Groth, Consumers Union's technical policy and public service director. "But these findings do suggest that parents might want to be careful about the amounts and types of fruits and vegetables they serve their children."
The findings were quickly disputed by agricultural and chemical trade groups. Some criticized the study's methods and others warned that the report could undermine children's health by discouraging parents from offering fresh produce.
"Reports like this alarm parents and may drive them to serve fewer – not more – fruits and vegetables for dinner," said Jay Vroom, president of the American Crop Protection Association. "This is just what the doctor doesn't order."
The Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates pesticide use, is revising its regulations with the specific intent of reducing the risk of harmful exposure to children.
"While this unprecedented scientific review . . . is underway, it is important to note that the U.S. food supply is the safest in the world, and the benefits of eating a balanced diet outweigh any risk," the agency said in a statement. "Consumers who still wish to take extra precautions should always wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly, and some consumers may choose to purchase organically grown foods."
The Consumers Union report, described as the first of its kind, was based on an analysis of 27,000 food samples tested by the U.S. Agriculture Department from 1994 to 1997. The researchers assigned a toxicity "score" to different foods based on the average level and toxicity of the pesticides they carried.
The good news was that most foods were relatively free of toxic residues. Scoring low on the toxicity scale were bananas, broccoli, orange juice and milk, as well as frozen and canned corn.
Other foods had consistently high toxicity values, including winter squash, apples, grapes, spinach, pears and green beans. At the top of the list: fresh peaches, which were frequently found to contain residues of the pesticide methyl parathion, a nerve agent. Two out of five American children who eat a peach would likely consume enough of the pesticide to exceed the EPA's safety recommendations, the study said.
While the levels rarely exceeded legal limits for pesticides in foods, many were higher than what the EPA considers safe.
The report's authors contend that many children develop stomach problems and other symptoms from pesticide ingestion each year, but parents and doctors do not often link those symptoms to pesticides. Over the long term, pesticide ingestion serious health problems, they said.
Despite a long history of pesticide regulation in the United States, pesticide levels were generally higher in domestically grown foods than in imported produce - a finding that Groth said belied "jingoistic" claims about the safety of the domestic food supply.
"In our analysis, the United States lost in two cases out of three [compared with imports]," Groth said. "That to me doesn't say that U.S. food is the safest."
To reduce the risk from pesticides, the study's authors recommended carefully washing all fresh fruits and vegetables, and peeling the skin from apples, pears and peaches. Parents should encourage children to eat a variety of produce and avoid eating large amounts of the foods with the highest toxicity scores.
The group also urged federal agencies to hasten their regulatory review to ensure that children are adequately protected.
"Consumers," said policy analyst Jeannine Kenney, "shouldn't have to go to extraordinary lengths to protect their kids from pesticides."
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