Health Risk Of Eating Pesticide-treated
Fruits and Vegetables
With the festive (eating everything in sight!)
holiday season upon us, I thought I would take this opportunity
to put your mind to rest about the safety of the food you will
be enjoying. I read an article which indicates that "an
overwhelming number of Texans, 87 percent, think the use of
pesticides on fruits and vegetables presents a health risk,
but less than one-quarter regularly eat organically grown produce".
This information is from a Texas Poll conducted quarterly for
Harte-Hanks Communications Inc. by the Public Policy Resources
Laboratory at Texas A&M University. Only 9 percent of those
polled think eating fruits and vegetables treated with pesticides
creates no health risk while 4 percent are uncertain. The intelligent,
informed persons of our society are represented by this small
13 percent of people who are smart enough and educated enough
not to be stampeded into hysteria by chemicals-are-killing scare-mongers.
Possibly a bit of truth thrust into the center of this sea of
confusion and chemical-mania will support the 13 percent rational
group and convert some of the confused 87 percent.
In the 1970's Dr. Bruce Ames, chairman of the
department of biochemistry at the University of California,
Berkeley, developed a method that uses bacteria instead of animals
to determine if a chemical causes mutations or potentially carcinogenic
substances. His method became known as the "Ames Test"
and was used extensively by the environmental movement for many
Dr. Ames indicates that more recent use of the
Ames Test resulted in a change in his own thinking. The test
uncovered mutagenic or potentially carcinogenic substances "everywhere"
he said in a "20/20" interview, citing such examples
of coffee, fried hamburgers and bread crusts. The more the Ames
Test revealed, especially in conjunction with parts-per-billion
chemical analysis, the more evident it became that practically
all foods have carcinogens in them.
Furthermore, he finds no scientific evidence
that most synthetic chemicals, such as pesticides, are more
carcinogenic than what occur as part of the background level
in nature. He told John Stossel of 20/20. "There's a whole
movement of people who are committed to the idea that man-made
chemicals are causing a lot of cancer. It's just that I don't
think there's much science behind it. In fact, the science is
all going the other way."
Dr. Ames went on to say that pesticide-free or
"organic" produce is not necessarily better than that
grown with pesticides "because the amount of pesticide
residues, manmade pesticide residues, people are eating is absolutely
trivial - in very, very tiny amounts. You get more carcinogens
in a cup of coffee than in all the pesticide residues you eat
in a day."
He made his comparison on the basis of a ranking
system that he and his colleagues developed and that was the
subject of an article they published last year in Science. The
team ranked various substances - both natural and man-made for
their potential to cause human cancer based on a combination
of carcinogenicity and typical daily human exposures to the
substances. As noted by John Stossel, in his interviews, pesticides,
such as DDT and EDB, came out much lower (in the ranking for
cancer causing potential) than herb tea and peanut butter. Alcohol
was higher on the list. And so were mushrooms.
Ames explained that "vegetables are good
food" but have developed "nature's pesticides"
of their own in order to try to ward off attackers, such as
insects, fungal and bacterial diseases. Many naturally occurring
substances are more carcinogenic than many synthetic chemicals,
Dr. Ames emphasized.
At this point, you may begin to believe that
eating any fresh fruit or vegetable, whether "organically"
grown or not, would cause you cancer, but that is , of course,
not the case. According to the American Council on Science and
Health (ACSH), a national consumer education association, the
best way to minimize the potential hazard is to eat a wide variety
of foods. This would lessen the chance that any single carcinogen
would be eaten in quantities that would overwhelm the body's
natural ability to handle low amounts of hazardous substances
with relative safety.
Mr. Stossel, in developing the "20/20"
story, contacted the American Cancer Society and American Medical
Association for their views on Dr. Ames and his work and found
that they largely agree with him.
So it seems that those who want carcinogen-free
food will soon become extinct. The Texas A&M Poll indicates
that young and middle-aged Texans appear to be the most concerned
about using pesticides on fruit and vegetable crops. Eighty-nine
percent of those 18 to 29 years old and 92 percent of those
30 to 44 believe using pesticides may create a health risk.
Of those ages 45 to 61, 83 percent believe there is some risk,
and of those older than 62, 79 percent say there's a risk. I
guess the old saying, older is wiser, is also applicable when
considering the need for the common sense use of pesticides
by commercial agricultural producers in order to efficiently
and effectively feed the peoples of the world. Possibly some
of the older Texans remember what it feels like to be hungry
and never want to enjoy the experience again!