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Pesticides in Your Food

Are you concerned about pesticides in my food?  Are you wondering whether this is something you should be worried about or whether it is another exaggerated risk?

The issue of pesticide residue in food is quite controversial. Pesticides are used because they have beneficial properties in terms of crop production and yield. With the use of pesticides, farmers can maximize their efforts in the field, thus minimizing the cost of the produce to the consumer. Pesticides are used by farmers to prevent fungal invasion, insect damage, and the growth of unwanted (and often poisonous) plants. This has a positive benefit in terms of public health because fungi, insects, and non-crop plants can contaminate crops with many natural toxins.

Pesticides are probably one of the most regulated chemical products used in the U.S. Several major organizations regulate the use of pesticide. These include the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food & Drug Administration, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. There are more than 14 separate regulations governing the use of pesticides. All of these regulations are in place to help protect human health.

Despite the many regulations, pesticide residues are found in our food supply. Because residues are an inevitable by-product of pesticide use, many of the current regulations are in place to address the public health implications of pesticide use. Therefore, there are very strict restrictions on the amount of pesticides residues that are allowed in food.

One of the regulations that is currently in place requires that pesticide manufacturers conduct toxicity testing on the pesticide before it can be permitted for use on products either directly or indirectly destined for human consumption (this includes animal feed). This toxicity testing not only determines the health effects of pesticides, but also the level at which there are no toxic effects on the most sensitive population (i.e. children and the elderly). This 'No Toxic Effect Level' (NOEL) becomes the basis for the permitted residue limit. The regulations set the permitted residue level at a level that is from 10 to 100 times lower than the NOEL. Furthermore, if a pesticide is tested and a NOEL can not be determined, then it is unlikely to be permitted for use on food crops. This helps ensure that if a person, child or adult, eats a larger than normal amounts of a particular food, or several different foods with the same or similar pesticide residue, they will still not reach the level of exposure required for a toxic effect to occur, even if they are more sensitive than the general population.

So, while pesticides may be found in many products, the levels at which they are present fall far below the levels known to not cause any health effects. The fact that they are found at all is only due to the significant advances in analytical chemistry. The tests are now so sensitive that the detection level that can be easily reached is equivalent to detecting one teaspoon of salt in one million gallons of water. Levels even lower than that can sometimes be detected. The mere presence of a trace amount of a pesticide does not mean that the product is unhealthy. On the contrary, eating a diet full of a variety of fruits, grains, and vegetables has been shown to significantly decrease your risk of a variety of health problems from high blood pressure to cancer. Variety is the key to good health.  And common sense suggests that you wash all foods carefully before preparing or eating them.