2014 “Dirty Dozen/Clean Fifteen” List of Pesticide-Laden Produce

by Diane, M.P.H, M.S.

The Environmental Working Group Shopper’s Guide helps consumers to enjoy the health benefits of fruits and vegetables with less exposure to pesticides

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) publishes an annual rating of conventional foods with the most and least pesticide residues. Since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not sufficiently warned Americans about the risks of pesticide exposure and ways to reduce pesticides in their diets, EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce was designed to fill this void. It translates an extensive database of pesticide tests conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on food crops into a user-friendly tool that empowers Americans to reduce their exposures to pesticide. This year’s guide draws from 32,000 produce samples tested by USDA and FDA scientists who detected pesticides on 65%, or about two of every three, samples!

EWG’s analysis of government tests has found sharp differences in the number and concentrations of pesticides measured on various fruits and vegetables. Consumers can reduce their intake of such pesticides by avoiding Dirty Dozen crops or purchasing organically-produced fruits and vegetables instead.

The Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 marked dramatic progress in the federal government’s efforts to protect Americans from dangerous pesticides. This legislation, which EWG played a major role in pushing through Congress, required EPA to assess pesticides due to their particular dangers to children and ensure that pesticides posed a “reasonable certainty of no harm” to children or any other high-risk group. The law is credited with reducing risks posed by pesticide residues on food. It forced American agribusiness to shift away from some of the most hazardous pesticides. But worrisome chemicals are not completely out of the food supply. Residues of many are still detected on some foods.

The Consumer Right to Know provision of the 1996 law required that EPA inform the public about possible hazards to their health brought about by consuming pesticides with their food. It ordered EPA to publish and distribute in grocery stores plain-English brochures that discussed the risks and benefits of pesticides on food. The brochures were to offer recommendations, so shoppers could reduce their dietary exposures to pesticides. The EPA published a brochure in 1999, but failed to detail the actual risks of pesticide exposures and give consumers clear information about foods with the most pesticide residues to help them reduce their exposures. EPA stopped publishing it altogether in 2007. Today, EPA offers some information about pesticides and food on its website, but does not list foods likely to contain the highest amounts of pesticide residues nor those that pose the greatest dangers to human health. It’s general advice is basically, ‘Wash your fruits and vegetables.’ Most importantly, the EPA does not offer the “right to know” information Congress required on behalf of consumers in 1996: how to avoid pesticide exposures while still eating a healthy diet.

Since the EPA has not complied with the Congressional mandate in full for more than a decade, EWG publishes the annual guide to help people eat healthy and reduce their exposure to pesticides in produce. The EWG’s Shopper’s Guide helps consumers select conventionally-raised fruits and vegetables that tend to test low for pesticide residues. When consumers want foods whose conventional versions test high for pesticides, they can choose organic.

Health risks of pesticide exposure: According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the health risks of pesticide exposure through food, water, or air are not yet clear. While USDA says that pesticide residues do not pose a safety concern, EWG notes that they are associated with many health risks, including cancer, brain and behavioral changes, and hormone disruption.

Children have unique susceptibilities to pesticide residues’ potential toxicity: Parents’ concerns have been validated by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which in 2012 issued an important report that cited research linking pesticide exposures in early life and “pediatric cancers, decreased cognitive function, and behavioral problems.” The organization advised its members to urge parents to consult “reliable resources that provide information on the relative pesticide content of various fruits and vegetables,” such as EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce.

European regulators act more quickly than their American counterparts to restrict common produce pesticides:

  • For years, Europe has questioned the safety and ecological dangers of a group of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, chemicals suspected of disrupting human brain development and killing honeybees and other beneficial insects. Neonicotinoid pesticides were developed as substitutes for older and more neurotoxic insecticides, primarily organophosphates and carbamates, and have been widely used by American, European, and other growers over the past decade. USDA testing has found neonicotinoid residues on about 20% of all produce samples and as much as 60% of broccoli, cauliflower, grapes, spinach and summer squash. Scientific research has suggested that neonicotinoids could harm children’s brain development and might contribute to the collapse of populations of honeybees and other pollinators. In response to these developments, European officials tightened their guidelines for allowable daily exposures to two neonicotinoid pesticides (EFSA 2013). Last December they declared a two-year moratorium on three neonicotinoids (European Commission 2013). Meanwhile, the U.S. EPA will soon require new cautionary language and instructions on the labels of neonicotinoid pesticides and are conducting a multi-year assessment of neonicotinoid toxicity, expected to conclude by 2018. Environmental advocates call EPA’s efforts slow and inadequate.
  • In June 2012, the European Commission banned diphenylamine (DPA) on fruit raised in the 28 European Union member states and imposed tight restrictions on imported fruit. DPA, a “growth regulator” or antioxidant, is applied after harvest to most apples conventionally grown in the U.S. and some U.S.-grown pears, to prevent fruit skin from discoloring during months of cold storage. As of March, 2014, apples and pears imported into the European Union can contain no more than 0.1 part per million of DPA (EC 2013). In the U.S., DPA, a “growth regulator” or antioxidant, is applied to most conventional apples and some pears after harvest
  • U.S. officials have not followed the Europeans in restricting either neonicotinoids or DPA. The EPA has not even studied the risks posed by DPA on apples since 1998.

EWG’s 2014 Dirty Dozen™: Includes apples, strawberries, grapes, celery, peaches, spinach, sweet bell peppers, imported nectarines, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, imported snap peas and potatoes, foods containing many different pesticide residues and high concentrations of pesticides relative to other produce items:

  • Apples were #1 on the list again this year. The pesticide diphenylamine, which was banned in Europe in 2012, was present on 80% of apples most recently tested.
  • Imported snap peas, absent from last year’s list, were added to the list, ranking as the 11th “dirtiest” type of produce.
  • Hot peppers, in 12th place in 2013, along with kale and collard greens were placed on a “Dirty Dozen Plus” list  of foods that don’t meet the “Dirty Dozen’s” criteria but still contain minimal amounts of insecticide.
  • Every sample of imported nectarines and 99% of apple samples tested positive for at least one pesticide residue.
  • The average potato had more pesticides by weight than any other food.
  • A single grape sample contained 15 pesticides.
  • Single samples of celery, cherry tomatoes, imported snap peas and strawberries showed 13 different pesticides apiece.

EWG’s 2014 Clean Fifteen™: Ranks produce least likely to contain pesticide residues, such as avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, cabbage, frozen sweet peas, onions, asparagus, mangoes, papayas, kiwis, eggplant, grapefruit, cantaloupe, cauliflower and sweet potatoes:

  • Cauliflower made an appearance on the list, avocado jumped from No. 2 to No. 1, and mushrooms were the only item to drop off the list this year.
  • Avocados were the cleanest: only 1% of avocado samples showed any detectable pesticides.
  • 89% of pineapples, 82% of kiwi, 80% of papayas, 88% of mango and 61% of cantaloupe had no residues at all.
  • No single fruit sample from the Clean Fifteen™ tested positive for more than 4 types of pesticides.
  • Detecting multiple pesticide residues is extremely rare on Clean Fifteen™ vegetables. Only 5.5% of Clean Fifteen™ samples had two or more pesticides.

Dirty Dozen PLUS™: For the 3rd year, the Dirty Dozen™ has a “Plus” category to highlight 2 foods that contain trace levels of highly hazardous pesticides. Leafy greens – kale and collard greens – and hot peppers do not meet traditional Dirty Dozen™ ranking criteria but were frequently contaminated with insecticides that are toxic to the human nervous system. People who eat these foods should buy organic instead.

Dirty Dozen 2014:

Sweet bell peppers
Nectarines (imported)
Cherry tomatoes
Snap peas (imported)

Dirty Dozen Plus™ 2014: Leafy greens (kale, collard greens) and hot peppers

Clean Fifteen 2014:

Sweet corn
Frozen sweet peas
Sweet potatoes

Genetically engineered (GE) crops: Most processed food contains one or more ingredients derived from GE crops. But GE food is not often found in the produce section of American supermarkets. A small percentage of zucchini, yellow squash and sweet corn in grocery stores is GE. Most Hawaiian papaya is GE. Other GE foods are currently being tested and may eventually be approved by the USDA. Since U.S. law does not require labeling of GE produce, consumers who want to avoid GE crops should purchase organically-grown foods or items bearing the “Non-GMO Project Verified” label. EWG recommends that consumers check EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Avoiding GE Food to help them identify foods likely to contain GE ingredients.

  1. AAP 2012. Organic Foods: Health and Environmental Advantages and Disadvantages. American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Nutrition and Council on Environmental Health. e1406 -e1415. doi: 10.1542/peds.2012-2579. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/130/5/e1406.
  2. EFSA. 2012. Conclusion on the peer review of the pesticide risk assessment of the active substance diphenylamine. European Food Safety Authority, EFSA Journal 10(1): 2486-2527.
  3. EFSA 2013. EFSA assesses potential link between two neonicotinoids and developmental neurotoxicity. European Food Safety Authority. (Source: http://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/press/news/131217.htm and http://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/efsajournal/pub/3471.htm).
  4. Environmental Working Group’s (EWG’s) 2014 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce. (Source: www.ewg.org/foodnews/).
  5. Environmental Working Group’s (EWG’s) 2014 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce: Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen. (Source: www.ewg.org/foodnews/summary.php).
  6. EPA. 2013. EPA’s review of the European Food Safety Authority’s conclusions regarding studies involving the neonicotinoid pesticides. December 23, 2013. (Source: http://www.epa.gov/oppfead1/cb/csb_page/updates/2013/efsa-conclus.html).
  7. European Commission. 2006. Commission Directive 2006/125/EC of 5 December 2006 on processed cereal-based foods and baby foods for infants and young children. OJ L 339, 6.12.2006: 16 – 35.
  8. European Commission. 2013. Bees & Pesticides: Commission goes ahead with plan to better protect bees. (Source: http://ec.europa.eu/food/animal/liveanimals/bees/neonicotinoids_en.htm).
  9. USDA. 2012. Pesticide Data Program: Annual Summary, Calendar Year 2010. U.S. Department of Agriculture, May 2012.
  10. USDA. 2014. Pesticide Data Program: Annual Summary, Calendar Year 2012. U.S. Department of Agriculture, February 2014.

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