Pesticides in Food

          Since the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s best selling book, Silent Spring, which essentially launched the environmental movement, the use of synthetic pesticides to control pests has been a major issue to the public as well as various heath and environmental groups.  Today, the toxicity of various pesticides is well recognized to reach beyond specific target organisms, affecting both wildlife as well as human health.  Specifically, exposure to pesticides has been associated with a variety of health problems, ranging from mild headaches and fatigue to more severe cancers, birth defects, reduced fertility, and nerve damage.  In spite of the damage caused by pesticides, however, the use of these toxic chemicals remains rampant in both the United States and abroad, and in some cases is even increasing.  Consequently, pesticides are found everywhere in the environment and can be measured in the blood and urine of nearly every human being on earth!

          While it is virtually impossible to completely eliminate pesticides from your grocery bag, an extremely simple and effective way to reduce your exposure to such chemicals is through the consumption of organic rather than conventionally grown produce.  In the United States, organic products can be easily identified at your local market by a label which reads “USDA Organic.,” indicating that the product has been grown and handled in accordance with the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990.  This Act applies not solely to products bearing this label, but to all food products sold or label as organic in the United States.  Provisions of the Act require that organic produce is grown and handled without the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.  This is not to guarantee organic produce will be devoid of synthetic chemicals since synthetic chemicals can still appear in old soils as well as drift between fields.  Instead, because the Act ensures organic food be grown according to specified practices, we can expect far less synthetic contaminants in organic produce.  It should be noted that consuming organic produce, while reducing your direct exposure to pesticides via consumption, can also reduce your indirect exposure as organic farms are less likely to contaminate the waters we use for drinking and recreation.
            Studies investigating the link between produce consumption and pesticide exposure have shown significantly reduced levels of pesticide residues in people consuming organic produce compared with those who consume conventionally grown produce.  One study based in Seattle measured organophosphate pesticide residues in the urine of preschool children and found that levels were 6 times higher in children whose diets consisted of conventionally grown produce compared with children whose diets consisted of organically grown produce.  When the diets of highly exposed children were shifted from conventional to organic, their pesticide levels dropped dramatically.  Upon reverting back to their original diets, levels of pesticide residues in their urine once again increased.  Another study reviewing various food pesticide databases reported that organically grown products contained one-third the amount of pesticide residues as found in conventionally grown products.  Additionally, the study concluded that organic foods were about 10 times less likely to contain multiple types of pesticide residues in a single product.

If you enjoyed this article, please join my blog!  Here you can leave comments and feedback.  Simply click the “join this site” button to the right, log in using your account info, and click “follow publicly.”  Thanks!!

                                                                                                -Shahir Masri


  1. I will be honest I do not have any extensive knowledge in Pesticides compositions. I find this article to be quite informative. I knew that the majority of the products use pesticides to help the crops, but I did not knew the high amounts farmers use to keep it under control. It is shocking how much pesticides concentration kids can have in their blood stream in comparison to other kids with organic diets.

    Would it be more cost effective to reduce the cost of Gov. organic labels for farmers so that organic products can be cheaper to the public? This way helping the public reduce the toxic chemicals in their bodies.

    Moises Moreida - Environment Class COH608

  2. Hi Moises,

    You pose an important question about the cost effectiveness of pesticide use versus organic farming. In theory, the main benefits of pesticide use in conventional farming practices include higher crop yields and more efficient land use, whereas organic farming tends to produce lower yields and often requires more land to grow a comparable crop.

    Although conventional farming is more efficient, a significant body of literature indicates pesticide exposure has been linked to many chronic diseases, such as cancer, diabetes, neurogenerative disorders, heart disease, and respiratory disorders, as well as birth defects and reproductive disorders (Mostafalou & Abdollahi, 2013). As Bourguet and Guillemaud (2016) state, the benefit-cost ratio of pesticide use may have fallen below 1 due to the cost of illnesses and deaths potentially related to this chemical use, meaning the costs may have outreached the benefits.

    This issue should be examined closely for healthier, sustainable farming practices and regulatory intervention. Perhaps organic farming is the solution (and can be made cheaper) with adequate support.

    Christal Jackson
    COH 608 Public Health and the Environment

    Bourguet, D., & Guillemaud, T. (2016). The Hidden and External Costs of Pesticide Use. In Sustainable Agriculture Reviews (pp. 35-120). Springer International Publishing.

    Mostafalou, S., & Abdollahi, M. (2013). Pesticides and human chronic diseases: Evidences, mechanisms, and perspectives. Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology, 268(2), 157-177.