UCSF Sustainability Stories

Ana Toepel, Green Impact, August 2019

3 Ways to Keep the Chemicals Out of Your Salad

Photo source: Unsplash.com

When you’re putting together a delicious kale salad for a summer picnic, you probably don’t know that pesticides are likely a hidden ingredient. Environmental Working Group (EWG) places kale at number three on this year’s Dirty Dozen™, their annual ranking of the fruits and vegetables with the most pesticides, which is based on analysis of test data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The USDA tests detected two or more pesticide residues on more than 92% of kale samples and up to 18 different residues on a single sample. Dacthal (DCPA)—classified as a possible carcinogen by the EPA since 1995 and prohibited in Europe since 2009—was the most frequently detected pesticide. And kale isn’t the only problematic produce item: the USDA data also found that almost 70% of U.S. produce comes with pesticide residues.

EWG’s 2019 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce™ cites several research studies and resources related to the health impacts of pesticide residues in the food we consume. One noteworthy finding is the lower rate of cancers found in people who ate organic food when compared to those who did not; another is the association between the consumption of foods high in pesticide residues and fertility problems. The Pesticide Action Network (PAN) warns that in addition to being linked to rising cancer rates and being an endocrine disrupter, pesticides are also associated with neurodevelopmental problems in children, such as learning disabilities and autism.

Want to avoid consuming pesticide residues with your produce? Here are three things you can do:

#1- Wash Fruits and Vegetables Thoroughly
A 2017 Popular Science article that was republished recently on Pocket explains that washing produce with water can remove some pesticide residues, so this is a good place to start. The article claims that store-bought veggie washes don’t actually work and that washing with soap isn’t a good idea because produce can absorb it. For harder to remove pesticide residues, like on apples, the article offers an alternative that can degrade certain pesticides: baking soda. It cites a study that found soaking apples in a solution of baking soda and water for up to 15 minutes removed the pesticides on them (though this might not work with all pesticides).

The Best Plants website adds that when you wash your produce with water you should be sure to scrub it with your fingers or a cleaning brush. They add that after washing you should dry fruits and vegetables with a clean cloth or paper towel to remove any remaining pesticide residue and make them safer to eat.

#2- Choose to Buy Organic
Since organic growers can still use naturally-derived pesticides (as opposed to the synthetic pesticides used by conventional growers) and pesticides can drift onto organic farms from neighboring farms that use them, buying organic doesn’t necessarily provide a foolproof guarantee that produce doesn’t have pesticide residues. Still, buying organic produce means that your exposure to harmful pesticides will be lower and that you are less likely to be subjected to health risks. EWG shares that the most recent of several studies evaluating the impact of eating an organic diet compared to a conventional one showed U.S. adults and children having significant reductions in urinary levels of pesticides while eating organic foods. Another benefit to organic over conventional is that you will be less likely to be exposed to the harmful herbicide glyphosate. (Read our story about glyphosate here.)

To help consumers make choices when shopping for produce, EWG compiles a list of the fruits and vegetables that tend to have the highest concentrations of pesticides, the Dirty Dozen™, and a list of those that tend to have the lowest, the Clean Fifteen™. You can find the lists here—consider bringing them with you to the farmer’s market or grocery store.

You could also consider joining a local organic farm’s Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program to get regular deliveries of organic produce while supporting organic agriculture. Local Harvest provides a listing of organic CSA’s serving the Bay Area that offer meats and honey in addition to fruits and vegetables, with pick up locations in San Francisco.

#3- Talk to Farmers
Sometimes it can be difficult to decipher what food labels really mean, whether something labeled organic has been sprayed with natural pesticides, or whether something is pesticide-free but just hasn’t been certified organic. There’s one way to know for sure—talk to the farmer that grew it. If you visit farmers’ markets, you can ask farmers directly how the produce was grown and which pesticides were used, if any. PAN’s Pesticide Database has an alphabetized list of chemicals that are used as pesticides with information on their toxicity, so if you learn that a farm sprays a certain pesticide, you can look it up to see if it’s a carcinogen or has other harmful properties.

UCSF hosts farmers’ markets every Wednesday, rain or shine, at two campus locations:

  • Parnassus (Located in the Elevator G, Breezeway, 10 am- 3 pm)
  • Mission Bay (Located at Gene Friend Way Vendor Plaza in front of Publico, 10 am- 2 pm)

For maps and more information, visit the Campus Life Services Farmers’ Market webpage.
The Pacific Coast Farmers Market Association, which helps to host UCSF’s markets, has a listing of all of the Farmers’ markets around the Bay Area. There are so many options—you could get out and talk to a farmer today!