Strawberries Top the Environmental Working Group's "Dirty Dozen" List

© Johner Images / Getty Images

By James Oliver Cury Posted April 15, 2016

Last year it was apples, but there's a debate about how dangerous the pesticides and gases really are.

For the first time ever, strawberries have been identified as public enemy #1 on the dirty dozen list in the "Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce," produced by the non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG). What that means is: Unless you buy organic, you are likely eating strawberries that grew in fields drenched with poisonous gases banned by the Geneva Conventions, as well as some illegal pesticides—made with ingredients developed for chemical warfare—that have been linked to cancer and reproductive damage or are banned in Europe. Mmm, strawberries.

Before you swear off the fruit entirely, please note that this horror story comes from one environmental group with a point of view. Others, like the writer at Applied Mythology, claim that the amount of chemicals and gases are highly unlikely to hurt anyone, including children, and that discouraging people from eating fruits or vegetables is not good for our national health. This perspective is also backed by the Alliance for Food and Farming (AFF), representing both organic and conventional growers, who cite statistics from the University of California. Conflicting conclusions come from different interpretations of the data—and opposing opinions about which practices should be illegal in this country.

Back to scary truths: U.S. farmers grow 350 kinds of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and other crops worth $60 billion annually. According to the EWG, the strawberries tested at the U.S. Department of Agriculture had an average of 5.75 different pesticides per sample, compared to 1.74 pesticides for all other produce. A whopping 98 percent of samples had detectable residues of at least one pesticide, 40 percent showed residues of 10 or more pesticides, and the dirtiest strawberries had residues of 17 different pesticides. What's worse, residue may remain even after fruit is picked, rinsed in the field, and washed before eating. The counter-argument argues that only about seven percent of the strawberries displayed illegal levels of pesticide residue. (Though that still seems scarily high, doesn't it?)

Among the chemicals used to ensure that you get the biggest, reddest strawberries in town are: Carbendazim (which "in high doses may cause infertility and destroy the testicles of laboratory animals"), Bifenthrin (a possible human carcinogen), Malathion (accused of many toxicities), and Malaoxon (whose health hazards go on for more than a paragraph in its Wikipedia page).

So what should you do? First, read the USDA's Pesticide Data Program (published in December 2015). Next, buy organic, wash fruit and veggies before eating, and remove the outer leaves of lettuce and cabbage. Finally, consult a more uplifting agricultural guide: The EWG publishes a "Clean 15," which will make you want to run to your local grocery store and hug some healthy avocados.

[h/t Food Safety News]

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