Which conventionally grown fruits and vegetables have the highest levels of pesticides? Here are the top “Dirty Dozen” that experts recommend swapping for organic options, especially for children.

The “Dirty Dozen” and the “Clean Fifteen” lists together make up the Environmental Working Group (EWG) annual Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce. The list analyzes Department of Agriculture (USDA) test data to identify which fresh fruits and vegetables are most and least contaminated with pesticide residues.

“An all-organic diet is simply not affordable or accessible for many Americans,” said Dr. Philip Landrigan, director of the Program in Global Public Health & the Common Good and a world-renowned pediatrician and epidemiologist. “EWG’s Shopper’s Guide provides useful, straightforward guidelines for choosing both organic and conventional produce to provide children with the healthy fruits and vegetables they need, but not the pesticide load they don’t.”

This year, the USDA’s tests found residues of potentially harmful chemical pesticides on nearly 70 percent of the non-organic fresh produce sold in the U.S. Before testing fruits and vegetables, the USDA washes, scrubs and peels them, as consumers would.

The top 2021 Dirty Dozen list includes:

  1. Strawberries
  2. Spinach
  3. Kale, collard and mustard greens
  4. Nectarines
  5. Apples
  6. Grapes
  7. Cherries
  8. Peaches
  9. Pears
  10. Bell and hot peppers
  11. Celery
  12. Tomatoes

Here are some of the newest findings compared to last year’s list:

  • Leafy greens

Collard and mustard greens made the list for the first time, ranking number three with kale. A total of 94 different pesticides were found on leafy greens, including neonicotinoids, or neonics. One sample of mustard greens had 20 different pesticides, and some kale and collard samples had as many as 17. The most commonly detected pesticide on all three greens was DCPA, which the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies as a possible human carcinogen, and the European Union banned it in 2009.

  • Peppers

The USDA found 115 pesticides on peppers – the most, by far, on any item. Bell peppers and hot peppers contained concerning levels of acephate and chlorpyrifos. Both are organophosphate insecticides that can harm children’s developing brains and are banned from use on some crops in the U.S. and from all uses in the EU. In 2017 under the Trump administration, the EPA rejected a proposed chlorpyrifos ban, allowing it to remain on the market and subsequently in foods.

  • Citrus

Although no citrus fruits landed on the Dirty Dozen, this year’s Shopper’s Guide highlights concerns for the levels of toxic pesticides found on these fruits, not only in USDA tests but also in independent laboratory tests commissioned by EWG. Imazalil, a fungicide linked to cancer and hormone disruption, was detected on more than 95 percent of tangerines tested by the USDA in 2019. In independent tests commissioned by EWG, nearly 90 percent of all the oranges, mandarins, grapefruit and lemons sampled contained either imazalil or thiabendazole, another endocrine-disrupting fungicide. More than half the samples had both.

“EPA’s tolerances are often far higher than what many scientists believe is safe – particularly for pregnant women, babies and young children,” said EWG president Ken Cook. “EWG releases our Shopper’s Guide each year so consumers can make informed decisions that will let them reduce their family’s exposure to toxic pesticides while allowing them to eat plenty of healthy fruits and vegetables.”

EWG “Clean Fifteen”

By contrast, EWG’s Clean Fifteen list of produce least likely to contain pesticide residues, or lower residues, include:

  1. Avocados
  2. Sweet corn
  3. Pineapple
  4. Onion
  5. Papaya
  6. Sweet peas (frozen)
  7. Eggplant
  8. Asparagus
  9. Broccoli
  10. Cabbage
  11. Kiwi
  12. Cauliflower
  13. Mushrooms
  14. Honeydew melon
  15. Cantaloupe

For more information, visit EWG.

Photo: Quinn Dombrowski / CC