By Kim Robson:
Women who are planning to become pregnant are advised to eat lots of fruits and vegetables with plenty of vitamins and fiber. But there is a rising concern that pesticide residues on those very fruits and veggies are resulting in a higher risk of infertility and a higher risk of miscarriage, according to a study published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.
We’ve long been concerned that long-term exposure to pesticides can lead to acute and chronic human health issues. Dr. Yu-Han Chiu, a research fellow in the department of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and first author of the study, says, “Most Americans are exposed to pesticides daily by consuming conventionally grown fruits and vegetables. There have been concerns for some time that exposure to low doses of pesticides through diet, such as those that we observed in this study, may have adverse health effects, especially in susceptible populations such as pregnant women and their fetus, and on children.” She added, “Our study provides evidence that this concern is not unwarranted.”
Big agro had their own spin on the study. Janet Collins, executive vice president of science and regulatory affairs for CropLife International, a trade association representing the manufacturers of pesticides, disagrees, saying the findings should be taken with a grain of salt. “The JAMA research publication does not show a direct link between pesticide residue intake and pregnancy outcome, as the authors state. This is a hypothesis generating study, and as the authors recommend, we agree that before a definitive outcome can be established the issues require further study.” (Collins was not involved in the study.)
The subjects were 325 women between 18 and 45 who were already undergoing infertility treatment with assisted reproductive technology at the Massachusetts General Hospital. They filled out diet assessment questionnaires and had their height, weight and overall health measured, with researchers accounting for outside factors, such as vitamin supplements and residential history, which could influence the results.
The subjects’ pesticide exposure was determined according to the fruits and vegetables consumed and whether they had high or low levels of pesticide residues. Residue levels were based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Pesticide Data Program, which monitors the amounts of pesticides found in U.S. food.
The researchers found that women who ate 2.3 servings or more of high-pesticide-residue fruits or vegetables (compared to those who ate less than one daily serving) had an 18% lower probability of getting pregnant and a 26% lower probability of giving birth to a live baby. Eating fruits and vegetables with high levels of pesticide residue was positively associated with the probability of losing a pregnancy, and eating low-pesticide-residue fruits and vegetables instead was associated with higher odds of pregnancy and giving birth.
“A reasonable choice based on these findings is to consume low-pesticide-residue fruits and vegetables instead of high-pesticide-residue ones. Another option is to go organic for the fruits and vegetables known to contain high pesticide residues,” Chiu said. “It is very important to keep in mind that, as far as we are aware, this is the first time that this association is reported, so it is extremely important that our findings are replicated in other studies.”
But organic fruits and vegetables can be expensive and hard to find, especially in poor neighborhoods. Irva Hertz-Picciotto, a professor and director of the Environmental Health Sciences Center at the University of California, Davis, said, “This is more difficult for those already vulnerable due to their socioeconomic circumstances. Avoiding pesticides becomes an ‘environmental justice’ issue, making it all the more important to reduce use of pesticides throughout agriculture and adopt more sustainable and health-promoting methods for food production.” (Hertz-Picciotto was not involved in the study.)
What About Nonorganic Produce?
For those who are unable to afford or reasonably find organic produce, it’s recommended to wash conventional produce thoroughly. The Food and Drug Administration recommends safe handling tips, including thorough washing under running water. You can also avoid those high-pesticide-residue foods and favor the low-pesticide-residue foods.
Avoid the “Dirty Dozen”
If you buy any of these fruits or veggies, GET ORGANIC:
- Bell peppers
Stick with the “Clean Fifteen”
These foods have low pesticide residue, so you can buy nonorganic if you want:
- Sweet corn
- Sweet peas (frozen)
- Honeydew melon