The problem is this: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) do their very best to test the many pesticides, hormones, and other chemicals that end up in our food supply and whatever they approve may indeed present very little danger to a human being when consumed separately. But these approved, safe chemicals will combine (when ingested) and when they do, they may present a danger that is higher — exponentially higher — than that presented by any of the separate chemicals alone.

And that doesn't include those chemicals that are not tested by the EPA — including, perhaps, chemicals used by other countries in their food production practices. And what about chemicals breathed in the air combining with chemicals found in our food and water?

The danger, then, of unexpected chemical combinations may be off the charts dangerous and possibly even lethal, especially to children.

Because they are undergoing periods of critical development, exposure to a toxin may permanently alter a child's biological system. This is one major reason that infants and children may be especially sensitive to health risks posed by chemical pesticides. First and most importantly, their internal organs are still developing and maturing. Second, in relation to their body weight, infants and children eat and drink more than adults, and this conceivably increases their relative exposure to pesticides in food and water. Third, they crawl and play on floors and lawns, where chemicals may be found, and they put objects in their mouths. And four, a child's excretory system is not fully developed, so their small bodies may not be able to fully remove pesticides.

Not only can pesticides harm a developing child directly, but these chemicals may also indirectly block absorption of important food nutrients necessary for healthy growth. It is also important to understand that each of us has distinct sensitivities, as evidenced by allergies, and an individual child may be susceptible to chemicals that do not generally harm other children.

Pesticides In Detail

The many pesticides currently used in food production include:

  • insecticides to control insects
  • rodenticides to control rodents
  • herbicides to control weeds
  • fungicides to control mold and fungus
  • antimicrobials to control bacteria

Meanwhile, chemical technology is continuing to expand and new chemicals are continuously being introduced. Although the EPA sets maximum residue limits (MRLs), or tolerances, for pesticides that can be used on various food and feed commodities, the use of pesticides is an ongoing issue for good reason. According to David Pimentel, a professor of ecology and agricultural sciences at Cornell University, the World Health Organization today reports there are 26 million pesticide poisonings, and 220,000 pesticide-related deaths per year worldwide.

"Approximately 70 percent of our foods are currently contaminated with pesticides," said Pimentel. "Only 10% of organic foods are generally free of pesticides and about 2 percent to 3 percent of US foods have pesticide residues above acceptable levels."

It is no surprise, then, that each year thousands of people report to poison control centers and emergency care clinics after being poisoned by pesticides. From 2000-2008 California alone had over 7,600 reported pesticide poisoning cases (individual people poisoned) resulting in almost 200 hospitalizations. About half of these were from agriculture uses, and half from non-agriculture uses such as homes, gardens, school yards and golf courses. The EPA has reported 300,000 non-fatal human pesticide poisonings.

Consider, too, that no government agency regularly tests seafood for mercury. A New York Times article published in 2008 found, through its own laboratory tests, so much mercury in tuna sushi from 20 Manhattan stores and restaurants that at most of them, a regular diet of six pieces a week would exceed the levels considered acceptable by the EPA. Although the samples were gathered in New York City, the Times reported that experts believe similar results would be observed elsewhere.

The approximately one million children who live on farms — especially the children of farmworkers — come in contact with pesticides routinely. In 2004 the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Agriculture Health Study reported increased childhood cancer risk associated with occupational exposure of the parents to pesticides. There is no more horrifying thought than the children of those who provide our food — is there any more precious commodity? — are at increased danger.

Food for Thought

Our taste buds acclimate to the food we routinely eat so, overtime, most of us become used to the taste of the most often-used chemicals. For instance, organophosphates, which are still used on crops as permitted by the EPA, is a class of 50 pesticides that were initially designed as chemical warfare agents. Exposure to organophosphate pesticides can cause dizziness, confusion, vomiting, convulsions, numbness in the limbs, and even death. They have also been linked to developmental delays, reduced IQ, and behavioral problems in exposed children. The EPA has banned most home uses of organophosphates, reducing their annual use from about 90 million pounds to under 60 million pounds annually but it is still allowed in pet flea and tick treatments.

Another danger is atrazine, an herbicide used in large volumes in the U.S. to keep weeds down in corn fields and other crops as well as on golf courses. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, this herbicide has been shown in animal studies to impair the immune system, reproductive organ development, and in adult men to impair sperm quality. In 2009 and 2010, the U.S. Geological Survey analyzed results of surface water and drinking water monitoring data for atrazine and found that approximately 75 percent of stream water and about 40 percent of all groundwater samples from agricultural areas contained atrazine, along with 80 percent of drinking water samples. It is most prevalent in the waterways and faucets of the American South and Midwest, where it runs off cattle pastures and fields of corn, sorghum, and other crops. But it is also applied to roadsides, lawns, and golf courses around the country.

What Can I Do?

Buy organic or from farms you trust as much as possible and where it matters most. The conventional varieties of these produce items are highest in pesticides:

  • Apples
  • Bell peppers
  • Carrots
  • Celery
  • Cherries
  • Grapes (imported)
  • Kale
  • Lettuce
  • Nectarines
  • Peaches
  • Pears
  • Potatoes
  • Strawberries
  • Sweet peppers.

Please remember that some farms are not big enough to afford the requirements to be certified organic by the government, but they are producing 'clean' food.

When choosing food, whether that be for cooking at home or from a menu, stick to "simple food, well-prepared," or "the sort of food our great grandmothers would recognize as food," as Michael Pollan expresses it. When purchasing pet products, consult the Green Paws Product Guide.

Eat American and eat local as much as possible, if only for one reason: You can more easily attain an understanding of the food production practices — and the food protection practices — in your area and your country. Most importantly, though, you have the right to impact and change any policies that may be harmful to your health.

Sources: Pimentel, D, Culliney, TW, Bashore, T. Public health risks associated with pesticides and natural toxins in foods. Radcliffe's IPM World Textbook. 2004-2007.

Pimentel, D. Silent Spring, the 50th anniversary of Rachel Carson's book. BMC Ecology. 2012.