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Pesticides on Your Plate


Pesticides are recognized as a global threat to humans and the environment. Chemical industries release thousands of compounds annually, most with no testing of their health impacts.

Pesticides are recognized as a global threat to humans and the environment. Chemical industries release thousands of compounds annually, most with no testing of their health impacts. Are they dangerous to your health? What can you do? Are you part of the problem?

The world's annual application of pesticides is more than 4.1 billion pounds. And that's just the quantity of active ingredients in the pesticides. The cost is $57 billion a year. But the true human and environmental cost is incalculable.

The effect on pests is obvious: They die. Forgotten is the effect on other life forms, on future crops grown in that saturated soil and on human health.

The average Canadian's body is likely to contain at least 500 synthetic chemicals, with the highest amount being DDE, a breakdown product of DDT although its manufacture has been banned here for decades. Hence, the term, persistent organic pollutants POPs a deadly group of pesticides and other chemicals such as flame retardants, stain repellants and so on.

And pesticides don't just affect humans. In North America, there are now liver tumour epizootics the wildlife equivalent of epidemics in 16 fish species in at least 25 different fresh-and salt-water locations. Some Great Lakes fish are hatching with both male and female sex organs. Or none at all.

Pesticides and other POPs tend to be more soluble in fat than in water, so once they are eaten, say by a minnow snapping up a pesticide-contaminated bit of plankton, they are stored in fat. The minnow carries nearly all the POPs it has ever encountered. A larger fish accumulates the POPs from all the minnows it eats. And so on. Whatever eats the biggest fish an eagle, polar bear, seal or your child gets a POP dose hundreds of thousands of times more concentrated than the water in which that fish swam.

It's no wonder Great Lakes eagles have trouble reproducing. Or that North Sea seals with high body loads of chemicals have compromised immune systems and can't fight common infections. Or that female polar bears are found with male reproductive organs, rendering them sterile. Or that breast milk in India and Zimbabwe gives babies six times the acceptable daily intake of DDE.

Powerful pesticides eaten or inhaled alter our DNA, the code for reproducing our cells. Alter the DNA and you create cells that are essentially different from the original. That difference is often called cancer. This cancer link is established.

The medical journal, The Lancet, reports that people with high blood levels of pesticides are far more likely to develop genetic mutations linked with cancer. In the age group 35 to 64, cancer is the number one killer in Canada.

But pesticides may also cause attention deficit disorder, mental and behavioural problems and untold autoimmune disorders. No one can deny a potential link between these many chemicals and virtually any ailment you care to imagine. We just don't know.

And when the risk is unknown like a foggy road ahead what should you do? Slow down, even stop? Or put the accelerator to the floor? Without government intervention, agriculture has chosen the "full speed ahead" approach. We're paying for it with human and animal lives. We're allowing our government to facilitate murder. We are, simultaneously, accomplices and victims.

More than 50,000 synthetic organic chemicals are in use; most have never been tested for their health impacts, environmental lifetimes and tendencies to bio-accumulate. Roughly a thousand new chemicals enter production annually. The barn door has been open far too long. What can you do today?

Twenty-five percent of all pesticides sold around the world are used to grow cotton. Say no to chemicals and say yes to organic cotton. Lawn spraying is a huge part of the problem in urban areas. Lobby for a ban.

Organic farmers utilize many techniques to control pests without resorting to synthetic pesticides techniques you can use at home to cultivate food and plants free of harmful chemicals. For example, crop rotation can reduce insect and disease damage and is especially effective with soil diseases.

Also, few realize that some plants act as natural insect repellents. Ascertain which pests are munching in your garden and you can add a few plants that drive those pests away. For instance, discourage aphids by adding mint, garlic or chives.

You can buy natural products with insecticidal properties. Rotenone is produced from the roots of the South American derris plant and is the most effective of the non-synthetic insecticides. It kills almost all garden insects.

Buy organic food. If you don't, washing thoroughly removes about a third of pesticide residues; produce "wash solutions" may remove another third.

But these measures are limited. And sadly, the trend is to increased pesticide use especially with the growth in crops that are genetically altered to be immune to pesticide damage. We need a human rights approach that recognizes that the current system of regulating the use, release and disposal of known and suspected carcinogens rather than preventing their generation in the first place is intolerable.

Sweden is actually taking the first step toward this approach. Its law now bans from commerce any substance that is persistent and bio-accumulates. Industry will be given five years to test at its own expense the 2,500 chemicals it uses in quantities more than 1,000 tons per year. Testing for health effects is not required--only testing for persistence and bio-accumulation, which in combination is sufficient to generate an automatic ban.

For any new chemical, the burden of proof in Sweden will be shifted to industry to show it's safe, rather than to the public to prove it's harmful. While the jury is out, the chemical cannot be used the reverse of the policy in Canada and all other countries, where a chemical is presumed innocent until proven guilty. The amazing part of this story is the enthusiastic support of Swedish industry. It's a good thing others aren't waiting around for us.

Look at it this way. You spray your lawn. A bird transfers some of those chemicals to a single organic berry thousands of kilometres away. The child of a health-conscious mother eats that berry. It causes a minute alteration in a single gene in that child's DNA. That leads to cancer from which that child dies. Should you care? Is murder any less murderous when it's anonymous?

Pesticides Found in Strawberries

Pesticides were found in 91 per cent of the strawberries tested. There were 40 pesticides found in strawberries: 2,4-D, Acephate, Anilazine, Azinphos Methyl, Benomyl, BHC, Bifenthrin, Captan, Carbaryl, Chlordane, Chlorothalonil, Chlorpyrifos, DCPA, DDT, DDVP (Dichlorvos), Diazinon, Dicofol, Dieldrin, Dimethoate, Diphenylamine (DPA), Endosulfans, Esfenvalerate, Fenpropathrin, Folpet, Heptachlor, Iprodione, Malathion, Metalaxyl, Methamidophos, Methidathion, Methomyl, Myclobutanil, Oxamyl, Parathion-methyl, Piperonyl butoxide, Propargite, Thiabendazole, Triadimefon, Vinclozolin.

Pesticides in Conventionally Grown Foods

Most Contaminated Foods:


  1. Peaches
  2. Apples
  3. Strawberries
  4. Nectarines
  5. Pears
  6. Cherries
  7. Red raspberries
  8. Imported grapes


  1. Spinach
  2. Bell peppers
  3. Celery
  4. Potatoes
  5. Hot peppers

Least Contaminated Foods:


  1. Avocado
  2. Pineapples
  3. Plantains
  4. Mangoes
  5. Watermelon
  6. Plums
  7. Kiwi fruit
  8. Blueberries
  9. Papaya
  10. Grapefruit


  1. Cauliflower
  2. Brussels sprouts
  3. Asparagus
  4. Radishes
  5. Broccoli
  6. Onions
  7. Okra
  8. Cabbage
  9. Eggplant


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Leah PayneLeah Payne