Fruit and vegetables provide us with a whole range of micronutrients to optimise our health. However, modern farming methods mean that they also pass on those pesky pesticides. These chemicals are a threat to our health and environment too. Meaning that your healthy summer salad could be having the opposite effect!
History of Pesticides
In order to supply the world’s growing population with enough food, farmers cannot risk a bad crop. For this reason, using pesticides seem like a good idea. Although tactics such as sulphur dusting were used as far back as 4500 years ago by the Sumerians, chemically manufactured pesticides were a 19th century invention. Further on in the 20th century scientists were beginning to become aware of the adverse effects of these chemicals.
One of the first chemical pesticides was DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) created in 1874 by the Austrian chemist Othmar Zeidler. It didn’t take long for its effects to become apparent. For example, DDT caused a case of poisoning in India in 1958, where over 100 people died from consuming contaminated wheat flour. DDT is toxic in large doses but even in smaller doses it can affect the liver, reproductive system and is a known carcinogen. DDT also degrades slowly in the environment; it entered water systems and was highly toxic to fish. It was eventually banned in the UK in 1986.
As a substitute for DDT, Chlorpyrifos was introduced in 1965. However, this chemical was no better than its predecessor. Chlorpyrifos led to developmental disorders in children, such as a higher risk of ADHD and poor reflexes. It was banned in 2000 but the effects are still with us.
Today, the UK agricultural industry uses the fungicide chlorothalonil which has been banned in the EU. There is a repetitive pattern of swapping out a confirmed toxic pesticide for a new solution. Which, in a few years’ time may also be deemed hazardous to health. Sulfoxaflor has been approved by many EU countries, despite its negative affect on bee communities. Banning a pesticide and replacing it with a new version has led to the presence of a cocktail of chemicals in our soil. One used on top of another, and the effects of these mixtures are unfortunately yet to be researched.
How can they harm our health?
Pesticides are toxic, there’s no two ways about it. The levels of pesticides have to be monitored regularly to ensure that they are used in as safe as possible way. Strict regulation means that the general population are not at risk of pesticide poisoning. Agricultural workers are mostly in danger from exposure to these chemicals.
However, there are other risks to health, associated with indirect exposure to pesticides, through the foods we eat and the water we drink. Research has revealed that pesticide exposure can increase risk of hypo- and hyperthyroidism, affecting the metabolism, growth and development of the human body. In terms of development, pesticide exposure is a risk to pregnant mothers and infants. Shockingly, traces of these chemicals have also been found in samples of breast milk.
Pesticides have been associated with elevated cancer risks, disruption of the body’s reproductive, immune, endocrine, and nervous systems. Generally we are exposed to pesticides through ingestion. Pesticide residues are found on or within fruits and vegetables or in the tissues of animals we eat. Also, pesticides can enter our systems through contaminated drinking water and in the air around us.
If digestive issues are a concern to you, it may be worth taking note that low level exposure to pesticides has been reported to negatively affect the gut microbiome. Furthermore, gut dysbiosis has been connected to the disruption of many other bodily systems; from brain function to the onset of allergies and intolerances.
How can I avoid pesticides?
In the modern day, it is difficult to completely avoid all pesticides as they have already entered our environment, the soil and water systems. The good news is that we can, reduce our intake of potentially hazardous chemicals and contaminants. By increasing awareness and adopting some new habits to deal with this pesticide problem, there are ways we can limit their effects.
What are the ‘dirty dozen’?
The dirty dozen (not the western) are in actual fact the top 12 most contaminated fruit and vegetables. Although these carry higher levels of pesticide residues, this doesn’t mean they should be avoided, but extra care should be taken when choosing or preparing fruit and veg on this list. 2023’s dirty dozen list includes: strawberries, spinach, kale, peaches, pears, nectarines, apples, grapes, bell/ hot peppers, cherries, blueberries and green beans.
…and ‘the clean fifteen’?
In contrast ‘the clean fifteen’ show the lowest levels of pesticide residues. Clean fifteen’s line-up includes: avocados, sweet corn, pineapple, onions, papaya, peas (frozen), asparagus, honeydew melon, kiwi, cabbage, mushrooms, mangoes, sweet potatoes, watermelon and carrots. The list changes from year to year, so keep up to date with revisions to both the dirty dozen and clean fifteen lists.
Opt for organic
Choosing organic produce is a great way to limit your intake of those pesky pesticides. However, eating organic comes at a cost. Your shopping budget is likely to increase by a substantial amount if you opt for purely organic fruit, veg and other pantry staples. If your budget can’t stretch quite that much, you can aim to only buy organic versions of the produce on the ‘dirty dozen’ list. This way you avoid the main offenders!
Grow your own
If buying organic is simply not an option for you, why not grow your own? Whether you own a patch of green or share a community garden, get to work and reap the rewards. Community gardening is a great way to start as you can share tips and produce with your fellow growers. It also takes the fear out of starting to grow fruit and veg from scratch. Not only that, but community gardening can help you get social too.
How to prep like a healthy chef
Fruit and vegetables hold a lot of beneficial nutrients such as fibre in their skin. So it would be a shame to peel all that goodness away! However, pesticide residues also hang around on the surfaces of fruit and vegetables. Therefore, you have to make sure you prepare all produce correctly. Before you even start cooking or taking a bite, give your fruit and veg the special treatment.
- Salt Water Soak: Research has revealed that that a 10% salt water solution is effective at removing pesticide residues (even DDT). After soaking in salt water for 2 minutes, rinse your fruit and veg with pure filtered water afterwards.
- Bicarb Bath: Add 1 teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda to 2 cups of water and soak for 15 minutes. Again, rise with filtered water afterwards.
- Vinegar Treatment: Mix together 1 part vinegar to 4 parts water. Or 10 ml of vinegar to 40 ml of water, then let your produce soak for 20 minutes. Be careful with berries as they may become mushy when left for too long.
Other ways to avoid contaminants
Pesticides have unfortunately found their way into our water supplies. Chemical run offs from treated fields and farms get washed into bodies of water. Whilst water companies work to significantly reduce the levels of pesticides in our drinking water, they cannot remove it all.
A water filter designed to remove contaminants is your safeguard against unnecessarily ingesting more potentially harmful chemicals. Fitting your home with a whole house water filter or simply installing a single point of use water filter in your kitchen sink can help combat these contaminants. If you are growing your own produce, a garden hose water filter will make sure that you water your organic fruit and veggies with pure filtered water.
The levels of chemicals we absorb in our day-to-day lives can be alarming, but by following these tips and making some simple changes to your home and garden you can reduce the impact of pesticides and other contaminants.