How To Avoid the Chemicals
in our Food

By guest bloggers Sonya Lunder and Alex Formuzis, of the Environmental Working Group

A sobering new study has found that along with their food, most Americans are ingesting a mix of toxic chemicals in amounts that violate government toxicity guidelines, putting them at increased risk of cancer. Young children (ages 2 to 4) had the greatest exposures to harmful contaminants, including acrylamide, arsenic, lead, and a rogue’s gallery of toxic pesticides and other industrial chemicals.

While it’s difficult to know for certain what these exposures mean for people’s health, the findings are troubling enough to give both parents and public health officials pause.

The scientists surveyed nearly 1,000 Californians about their daily diets and analyzed measurements of toxic chemicals in common foods gathered for the Food and Drug Administration’s Total Diet Study. They calculated that every one of the children in the study exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) “safety guideline” level for arsenic, the pesticide dieldrin, the insecticide DDE, and dioxin, a notoriously toxic and carcinogenic industrial by-product. EPA’s guidelines set the amount of a chemical that can be safely consumed without raising the risk for cancer or other health effects.

In addition, 95 percent of preschool-age children exceeded the safety level for acrylamide, a neurotoxin and suspected carcinogen, and 10 percent were above the safe amount for mercury, which is toxic to the brain and heart. In many cases, the chemical exposures were greatest for preschoolers, but older children and adults frequently exceeded EPA’s safety levels, as well, suggesting that these dietary risks can extend across a lifetime.

In an email, the lead author of the study, Rainbow Vogt, of University of California–Davis, told Environmental Working Group (EWG), “The results of this study indicate that children are at considerable risk from cancer from food contaminants such as arsenic and persistent pollutants (banned pesticides such as chlordane and dieldrin and industrial processing by-products such as PCDD/Fs [dioxins]). Based on usual consumption patterns of common foods, children exceeded allowable levels of each of these contaminants by anywhere from 2 to 1,000 times the cancer cutoff. Previous studies show that being exposed to multiple toxins, as we are, through the diet presents a greater disease risk than being exposed to just one—as we would expect. Taken together, the cumulative effect of current estimated exposure to food-based carcinogens poses a formidable risk for children.”

In the Vogt study, the greatest exposure to pesticides from foods came from tomatoes, peaches, apples, peppers, grapes, lettuce, broccoli, strawberries, spinach, dairy, pears, green beans, and celery. All but broccoli, pears, and tomatoes are on EWG’s 2012 Dirty Dozen list of produce with the most pesticide residues.

Many scientists and public health advocates have come to believe that a number of increasingly common problems that afflict children, including autism, ADHD, low birth weight, early delivery, asthma, infertility, diabetes and cancer, are linked to exposures to toxic chemicals and pesticides.

In an email to EWG, Vogt said systematic changes are needed to protect the public from toxic chemicals, specifically “regulating exposure based on cumulative exposure or multiple contaminants. We looked at 11 contaminants in our study, but this is only a handful of the thousands of chemicals we are exposed to through food, water, air and products in our environment.”

We couldn’t agree more.

There are steps you can take to reduce the amount of pesticides and other dietary contaminants in your family’s food. EWG’s “Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides” can help, and the website contains advice on how to limit your dietary intake of arsenic, which turns up in a variety of foods but primarily rice. You should also be aware of the everyday household chemical exposures that can cause harm.

Last month, the American Academy of Pediatrics, hardly an activist environmental group, voiced its concerns about the effect of dietary exposure to pesticides on brain development in young children. In a section of its report titled Advice for Pediatricians, (page e1413), the Academy recommended that parents use “EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce” to help reduce children’s consumption of hazardous crop chemicals.

Here’s a quick reminder of the worst pesticide offenders:

The Dirty Dozen:

  1. Apples
  2. Celery
  3. Sweet bell peppers
  4. Peaches
  5. Strawberries
  6. Nectarines (imported)
  7. Grapes
  8. Spinach
  9. Lettuce
  10. Cucumbers
  11. Blueberries (domestic)
  12. Potatoes
    +Green beans



Sonya Lunder, MPH, is a senior research analyst for the Environmental Working Group. Sonya holds a Masters of Public Health in environmental health sciences from UC-Berkeley . Prior to joining EWG in 2002, Sonya managed a community health intervention at a Superfund site, and worked for California’s Environmental Health Investigations Branch.

Alex Formuzis is vice president for media relations at Environmental Working Group. He came to EWG in 2007 after nearly a decade as a senior communications aide to three members of the United States Senate. Prior to his time on Capitol Hill, he was in the public affairs shop of the Clinton Treasury Department and worked on state and national campaigns in his native Washington state


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3 Responses to How To Avoid the Chemicals
in our Food

  1. Paul January 14, 2013 at 9:01 pm #

    Thanks for posting this article and links. Is there anything that can wash some of toxic chemicals and pesticides in our food, like vinegar?

  2. Edwin February 16, 2013 at 12:21 pm #

    Food? or just fruit? I didn’t see anything about the foods with added GMO ingredients. Several other countries have banned them or require labeling. America does not even enforce labeling of genetically modified food ingredients. Illness is big profit in U.S.

  3. f.g.s. January 29, 2014 at 3:42 pm #

    legally being poisoned via wall st-via lobbyist-via leaders-via store to you,,,(wonder why u.s. is such a sick country)-peace,f.g.s.

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