June 17th, 2011
07:51 AM ET

Should I avoid the 'Dirty Dozen'?

Every weekday, a CNNHealth expert doctor answers a viewer question. On Friday, it's Dr. Melina Jampolis, a physician nutrition specialist.

Asked by Karen C. of San Francisco

What are your thoughts on the latest release of the 'dirty dozen' fruits and vegetables list, released this week by the Environmental Working Group?

Expert answer:

Hi Karen! This is an important question and I will give you my opinion based on my investigation into this question.

My first reaction was fear - not fear about the health effects of pesticides in our produce, rather fear that Americans would eat even fewer fruits and vegetables as a result of this report.

My second reaction was concern for my 14-month-old son - would I feed him only organic versions of the dirty dozen based on this report?

To answer that question, I turned to Anne Riederer, adjunct assistant professor of environmental health at Emory University, who has been involved in several research studies examining this question of pesticide exposure in children.

She explained that many pesticides are neurotoxicants, which means that they damage the brain. Therefore, two of the most potentially vulnerable populations are pregnant women and children 6 years old and younger.

There are several large ongoing studies looking at pregnant women and their children as they grow in this age range, and full results have not been published yet. Preliminary findings in one major study in which the women had above average pesticide exposure - they lived in a farm working community - did show a significant effect on several markers of brain development in their offspring.

Studies in adults in high-exposure populations, such as farmers who frequently apply pesticides, have shown an increased risk of neurodegenerative disease, as well as wheeze and other indicators of poor lung function.

However, the risk could be due to inhaled pesticide in addition to consumed pesticide, so it is not at all clear how much risk there is to the general population based on consumption of pesticides in produce.

Dr. Riederer, who is currently conducting a study in which everything that children consume during a four-day period is assessed to quantify total daily exposure, notes that in her research, exposure to certain pesticides in house dust may be equal to or greater than the exposure from food.

The levels of pesticides allowed on agricultural commodities in the United States are regulated more strictly than the amounts people can spray inside their homes - this depends entirely on how well people follow the safety instructions on the label.

She went on to say that in her research group, they have also found pesticides in processed foods and foods labeled organic, although they find them in organic foods less frequently than in conventional foods.

The bottom line, in my opinion, is that pesticide exposure may increase risk of disease, but the levels at which this happens are unknown at this time. The benefit of eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables - which are loaded with vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, antioxidants and fiber and are generally low in calories - is known when it comes to obesity, heart disease, digestive health, certain causes of blindness, and certain types of cancer.

For pregnant women or children 6 and under, I suggest that you buy organic versions of the dirty dozen if you can. If organic, which is far more expensive in most cases, is not an option, make sure you get a variety of fruits and vegetables to minimize exposure risk, and make sure to limit pesticide use in your household as much as possible to avoid increasing exposure even further.

For adults, in terms of overall health, I am much more concerned about adequate consumption of fruits and vegetables for disease prevention and weight control. Buying organic is a great option if you can afford it, but maintaining a healthy weight has far more profound health benefits based on currently available research.

Follow Dr. Jampolis on Twitter

soundoff (35 Responses)
  1. Charles Gilman

    This is really serious stuff; I mean, look at the millions of people dying by eating these fruits and veggies. Oh wait, no they're not.

    June 17, 2011 at 09:33 | Report abuse | Reply
    • TRouble

      Well said. I'm so sick of elitists telling the poor that their produce is somehow tainted, that it will kill them, and that they again need to aspire to what they can't afford with "better" organic food. It is such a crock and very unfair! Let's feed everyone first and encourage them to eat fruits and veggies and put down the processed food, fast food and sweets! How bout that?

      June 17, 2011 at 11:49 | Report abuse |
    • Bubba

      Dang elitists are always telling me not to drink bug spray. Well, it's a free country.

      June 17, 2011 at 12:27 | Report abuse |
    • Jason

      So, would you prefer no one did any research and people are left wondering what is in their food? Making informed choices about your food (organic or not organic) requires information. Articles like this provide that information and then people can make their choices. Not sure why you are so against making information available...

      June 17, 2011 at 14:38 | Report abuse |
    • Kate

      Charles Gilman: Why do people, especially children, have to be dying off as a result of pesticide tainted foods before you get concerned? Isn't the autism rate in boys about 1 in 80 and the overall rate about 1 in 100 children that are diagnosed. The autism rate is growing and ADHD is rampant and nobody knows why. Oh and not to mention that Alzheimers, another brain disease is an epidemic. Gee, I think it's time to be concerned and conduct a few tests... don't ya think?

      June 18, 2011 at 01:39 | Report abuse |
    • ALAN

      You are right....nobody is dying. Kids are developing mental issues, learning disabilities etc etc as a result of the chemicals they are consuming. Life is tough enough for all of us...never mind trying to get through life with a learning or other bodily disability....don't you think? It would be nice for all of us...especially our kids to have great start in life....and not one that involves special schools because we or they consumed too much toxic products as kids..

      June 18, 2011 at 04:48 | Report abuse |
    • Juan

      Pesticides causing autism (a fake disease for mommy's little precious snowflake) and ADHD (the 1990's ailment for children raised by television, not parents)? Really?

      June 19, 2011 at 12:14 | Report abuse |
    • anna

      Wasnt it organic vegetables that start the e coli catastophe in Germany?????

      June 20, 2011 at 15:04 | Report abuse |
    • linda

      Juan, you have no idea what you are talking about! I won't even waste energy explaining this one.

      June 20, 2011 at 15:17 | Report abuse |
    • linda

      Trouble, I know people that are on welfare and get food stamps, they still chose unhealthy food – even with assistance. I do agree with your statement about processed foods. How do we know that fresh foods with pesticides are the problem or is it the processed foods. More needs to be done about getting those things off the shelf and make healthier foods more affordable for everyone.

      June 20, 2011 at 15:20 | Report abuse |
  2. Karenengr

    Our daughter was a born with developmental delays and a serious birth defect (congenital diaphragmatic hernia)–intestines up in chest cavity–which has been linked to exposure to a certain pesticide. Growing up we never ate organic produce (wasn't available or even heard of), and my parents sprayed our fruit trees every year to prevent worms (I'll never forget that smell). In addition the yards where we played at school and at home were always sprayed to prevent weeds. And of course we wore the pajamas sprayed with flame retardant.

    I'll never know if it was my exposure to pesitcides and herbicides over my lifetime that caused the birth defect or some other random event, but as I raise my child, I try to buy organic whenever possible, not only to help protect our family, but farm workers and ecosystems–who wants all those pesticides running into the drinking water that everyone uses?

    June 17, 2011 at 10:24 | Report abuse | Reply
    • William

      Very sorry to hear about your daughter. Its frustrating to think how many chemicals are sprayed on our food, and how hard Big Agra lobbies to keep the FDA and others from even raising questions about their effects.

      Buy organic and non-GM whenever possible and ignore the industry shills who patrol these forums.

      June 17, 2011 at 13:20 | Report abuse |
  3. JFWilder

    I thought "The Dirty Dozen" was a pretty good movie. Why avoid it? 😉

    June 17, 2011 at 10:42 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Bubba

      "I thought "The Dirty Dozen" was a pretty good movie. Why avoid it?" Telly Savalas' smile is too creepy. It'll give you nightmares.

      June 17, 2011 at 12:03 | Report abuse |
    • Joe

      maybe they want us to avoid the sequels........

      June 17, 2011 at 12:13 | Report abuse |
  4. laur

    I buy organic when I can, unfortunately sometimes it is just too expensive. I bought 3 organic apples the other day and it cost over $3.00. I bought the pesticide laden ones for me and my husband. The organic are for my boys who will share one. Right now they are small but when they get older we couldn't afford to buy organic apples, we would be broke buying a dozen or so a week.

    June 17, 2011 at 13:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Marilyn

    I will never forget one day last summer after my adhd son had an exceptionally adhd day, couldn't sit still and just wasn't acting like himself. It dawned on my that I had bought tons of berries that week – it was the end of the summer, they were so cheap at the grocery store and he loves them. He ate pint after pint of berries. A lightbulb went off that they're on the dirty dozen list & I decided that day to try to buy mostly organic produce moving forward. It's been almost a year & we have seen an incredible improvement in his behavior. I sincerely believe that change is what did it. I do buy less produce but I also waste less. I also buy local produce often even if it's not labeled organic as I assume the pesticides aren't as industrial and strong. Not sure why if you're buying strawberries and a bunch of chemicals why it doesn't have to be labeled that way. I just want the strawberries...

    June 17, 2011 at 19:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. pinwheel

    I agree that being informed is a great thing, but I also agree that unfortunately economics comes in to play here. I buy organic and local produce when I can and when in season, but I cannot afford to buy organic all the time. We just don't have that kind of disposible income. I know that there are those who say that doesn't your children's health mean anything to you at any cost, but even with only 2 children, I find that when my children say they are still hungry and I couldn't afford to buy enough organic apples for the week I feel pretty guilty. So sometimes it comes down to having more than enough healthy food, or not enough and listening to my children complain.

    June 17, 2011 at 21:05 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Interested48

      Organic is a bit more expensive but not that much. I'd rather pay a bit more now than pay for chemotherapy later on!

      June 19, 2011 at 18:41 | Report abuse |
  7. Matthew Cottrell

    NEUROTOXICANTS?????? What the hell kind of idiotic made-up word is that? How about "neurotoxins?"

    Your credibility is, well, suffering from lackantcy. Or some such idiocy.

    June 17, 2011 at 21:56 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Mr. Dictionary

      Neurotoxicant and neurotoxin are both accepted scientific terms.

      G**gle it.

      June 18, 2011 at 00:25 | Report abuse |
  8. Kate

    Just an observation that I've made as a new mother: There are a lot of apples in baby food. Most of the fruit combination jars for every brand I've looked at contain apples. Even the dinner combinations contain apples. It's the one main ingredients in most jarred baby foods. I buy organic baby food most of the time because years ago I read that apples had high levels of pesticides sprayed on them. In fact actress Merle Streep was instrumental in trying to get the use of pesticides reduced because children consumed more apple juice than adults and she was concerned for her own children. My husband eats apples almost every day and not only is he very moody, he's disorganized and constantly loses or misplaces things.

    June 18, 2011 at 01:51 | Report abuse | Reply
    • TF

      Believe it or not, you can feed your baby non-baby food. In fact, that's what people did before some corporate genius came up with the idea of marketing slop in jars. There are tons of recipes online for making your own baby food. It's cheaper, and better for your child – and they don't grow up eating specialty "kid foods" which are just marketing ploys, and the reason why so many adults these days still want to eat like toddlers. Give it a thought – then you can control the amount of apple in your child's food, if it is a concern.

      June 18, 2011 at 13:30 | Report abuse |
  9. lisaglenn18

    Oh yeah major brands always give out samples on their products, search online for "123 Samples" I just got mine. CC not required.

    June 18, 2011 at 04:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. J. Wilford

    People complain that organic food is too expensive yet some will have no problem shelling out $4 a day on a Starbucks, half-caff, double latte with low fat milk and a dusting of cinnamon......The US spends 10 percent of their family budget on food. In Italy it is 20 percent. If you value it you'll pay for it. We've been fed too many 33 cent boxes of Kraft Mac and Cheese....

    June 18, 2011 at 21:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Stan

    It never felt right to me to put poison on food to make more money........

    June 18, 2011 at 22:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Alexandra

    How about concentrating on ways to create more organic fruit and veggies, and bring the price down? Pesiticdes kill. That's what the "cides" means from Latin. Pesticides are endocrine disruptors. We didn't realize the negative effects when the product was introduced. Now we know pesticide residue allows toxic chemicals to get into our bodies. Not a good thing, to be avoided if possible. The chemical industry does not want regulation and has fought it for years, according to the book Pollution. Senator Frank Lautenberg of NJ recently introduced the "Safe Chemicals Act of 2011" in Congress. Have you called your senator to suggest he/she co-sponsor this bill?

    June 19, 2011 at 06:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. michael

    authors fail to mention (it may be widely unknown) that banned pesticides are sold abroad so that the veggies can then be brought into our stores. so buying local makes sense ecologically, as well as, personally. most stores will tell you if it is USA sourced or not.

    June 19, 2011 at 15:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Jim

    before everybody runs out and buys organic, just remember that it was organic sprouts that were implicated in the huge e. coli outbreak in europe. organic might be better in terms of pesticide, but it certainly doesn't seem to guarantee health and safety.

    June 20, 2011 at 00:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. mmi16

    Birth causes death......eventually

    June 20, 2011 at 01:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. CivilEng

    Lack of data on the long-term effects of pesticide and herbicide exposure does not mean they are not harmful to people. Seems like common sense to me...pesticides and herbicides are designed to kill. Ingestion of them by people does not seem like a good thing.

    June 20, 2011 at 07:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Charles

    Organic food isn't that much more expensive. I don't understand this. People always say, oh such-and-such food is so expensive. Oh, I can't afford to shop at Whole Foods. But the same people somehow can afford a cable bill, an iPhone bill, etc. etc. It all depends on what you value in your life. Do you value your health, do you care about what you eat? or would you rather spend your dollars on fancy electronics? Anyway, the more people demand and buy organic, maybe it will eventually become more affordable. It all boils down to what is really important to you.

    June 20, 2011 at 11:14 | Report abuse | Reply
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