Avoiding Environmental Toxins

By Dr. Abrahamson on

Many of us are concerned about the adverse health effects of environmental pollutants such as agricultural pesticides and industrial chemicals. In recent years, there have been bans on certain chemicals, as well as ongoing research into the effects of others. The federal government took a major step when they implemented national standards for organic produce in October 2002.

While the specific health effects of most pesticides and environmental toxins have not yet been established, the research to date indicates that low dose exposure to industrial chemicals and pesticides does present a significant risk to human health.  Endocrine and nervous system disorders, as well as many cancers, are just some of the health problems that have been linked to long term, low dose chemical exposure.

The idea that organic produce is healthier than produce grown with agricultural chemicals has mostly been based on the absence of environmental toxins rather than a higher nutritional profile. But could organic produce also have additional health benefits that produce grown with pesticides is missing?

According to UC Berkeley, a recent study found organic fruits and vegetables to have more phytochemicals than conventionally grown produce (produce grown using pesticides.) Phytochemicals are naturally occurring plant chemicals that have numerous health benefits. One theory behind this interesting discovery is that phytochemicals act as the plant’s natural pesticides. When synthetic pesticides are used, the plant has less need to produce its own defenses and thus produces less phytochemicals.

In a perfect world we would eat only organically grown foods with their abundance of healthy phytochemicals and absence of toxic residues. Unfortunately, it may not always be possible to choose organic produce. The Environmental Working Group, a non-profit environmental research organization, has developed the “Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce.” This is a handy guide to which produce items are highest and lowest in pesticides, so that if you are unable to buy organic, you can at least make informed decisions about the conventionally grown produce that you consume.

Foods You’ll Want to Buy Organic

The following have the heaviest load of pesticides (in order).  Always buy these foods organic if you can. If organic is not available, you may want to choose those that are consistently less contaminated.

Fruits                                                               Vegetable                                 Meats

Peaches                                                            Spinach                                    Beef

Apples                                                             Bell Peppers                             Dairy products

Strawberries                                                      Celery                                      Farmed  salmon

Nectarines                                                        Potatoes                                  Chicken

Pears                                                                Hot peppers


Red raspberries

Imported grapes (from Mexico and Chile)



The following produce have the least pesticide contamination among convenionally-grown foods (in order):

Fruits                                                               Vegetable                                 Meats

Pineapple                                                         Avocado                                  Wild salmon

Plantain                                                           Cauliflower                               Deep-sea fish

Mango                                                             Brussel sprouts                         Free-range chicken

Banana                                                             Asparagus                                 Free-range beef

Watermelon                                                     Radish                                      Ostrich

Plum                                                                Broccoli

Kiwi                                                                 Onion

Blueberries                                                       Okra

Papaya                                                             Corn (sweet)

Grapefruit                                                        Peas (sweet)


The above data was gathered after the produce was washed or peeled.  While washing and rinsing fresh procude may help reduce pesticide residues, it does not eleiminate then.  Peeling reduces exposures, but valuable nutrienst often go down the drain with the peel. people can lower their pesticide exposure by 90 percent by avoiding the top twelve most contaminated fruits and vegetables and eating the least contaminated instead. Eating the most contaminated fruits and vegetables will expose a person to nearly 20 pesticides per day, on average. Eating  the least contaminated will expose a person to a fraction over 2 pesticides per day.

Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables because they’re essential to a healthy diet. But you can and should cut back on pesticides–just as you might cut back on fat, calories or cholesterol.

Right now, buying organic food is the best option to reduce your intake of pesticides if (like me) you’re skeptical about government and chemical company claims that pesticides are “safe.” If you want to eat conventionally produced fruits and vegetables that usually have fewer pesticides, you can change your eating habits to do so.

In addition to awareness of chemicals in your produce, there are many other simple steps you can take to avoid exposure to environmental toxins: Reduce your consumption of processed foods. Processed foods usually contain additives and preservatives as well as being lower in nutrients than their whole food counterparts.

Reduce your consumption of meats and high fat dairy products. Because toxins accumulate as you go up the food chain, replacing meat and animal products with whole grains, beans, soy products, fruits and vegetables will also reduce your exposure to environmental toxins. This is not to say that you need to follow a vegetarian diet, but consider reducing your overall intake of animal products.

Microwave your food in glass or ceramic containers rather than plastic to avoid leeching of chemicals into the food.

Reduce the number of household cleaning products that you use. Look for the biodegradable alternatives widely available in health food stores. Use non-toxic cleaning products, such as baking soda and vinegar, that are already in your home. Many companies that sell environmentally-friendly cleaning products have great cleaning tips on their websites.

Reduce the number of personal care products and cosmetics that you use. These products may contain harmful chemicals. You can also look for products that contain non-toxic alternatives. However, be aware that the term “organic” is not regulated on non-food items and “natural” doesn’t always indicate a better product. Read the labels and see how many ingredients you recognize.

A great source of up-to-date information is from the nonprofit Environmental Working Group http://ewg.org


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