What Chemicals Are in Food? Simple Solutions to Avoid Harmful Toxins in Food

By Melinda Wenner Moyer, "How you can avoid BPA, mercury, pesticides and more chemicals in your food.," September/October 2011

How you can avoid BPA, mercury, pesticides and more chemicals in your food.

"Thank you for this article. This has long been a concern for our family. Luckily my in-laws raise grass fed beef, chicken, and organic pork. I would love a source for more food companies that have eliminated BPA and other toxins from...

Pesticides Approved for use in the United States

There are hundreds of pesticides approved for use in the United States and they all present different risks: some are linked with cancer, while others can cause birth defects or harm the nervous system. One new study in the European Journal of Epidemiology, for example, found that people who worked near fields spread with synthetic pesticides had a considerably increased risk of developing Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system. Some pesticides—including organophosphates commonly used on crops—are what are known as endocrine disruptors, which means that they affect the body’s highly sensitive endocrine (hormone) system. There’s good reason to be concerned about this: the body uses hormones to coordinate just about everything—cell growth, appetite and metabolism, among other things.

Some experts argue that we shouldn’t worry so much about pesticide residues. Yes, the Centers for Disease Control’s 2009 National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals found that most people had organochlorine pesticides (commonly used to protect crops from insects) in their bodies, but the levels detected were too low for concern.

Other experts disagree. Hormones are incredibly potent, says Laura Vandenberg, Ph.D., a biologist at Tufts University. “Our endocrine system is so finely tuned,” she says. Even if a chemical is present in only trace amounts, it can still be “at a level where it’s incredibly biologically active.” As an example, she says, a recent study linked low levels of BPA with an increased risk for heart disease.

Vandenberg’s words were enough to convince me to make the switch to organic. But I didn’t go all-out. I downloaded the iPhone app for the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen list (, which includes the 12 most pesticide-laden fruits and vegetables—apples are currently the worst, followed by celery, strawberries, peaches and spinach—and prioritized accordingly. For things that weren’t on that list, and produce I was going to peel anyway, I didn’t stress, but I made sure to wash pieces well before eating them, since research has shown that rinsing produce thoroughly under running water removes some pesticides (and special washes don’t do any better than regular water).

Next: How I Reduced PCBs, Dioxins and Mercury in My Food »

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