Dirty Dozen Clean Fifteen – why bother?

Dirty Dozen Clean Fifteen [1] is an annual list produced by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). It summarises the foods which are most and least, contaminated with pesticides in the USA. The data is compiled by the US Department of Agriculture. It is published as an aid to shoppers. EWG suggests that you concentrate your organic budget on the dirty dozen to minimise pesticide exposure for your family. There is no equivalent list for Australia.

Why do we need Dirty Dozen Clean Fifteen?

EWG produce this list because of the as yet under-quantified health risks to consumers of continued low-level exposure to pesticides. The health risks associated with pesticide exposure include increased risk of:

  • Obesity
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Learning difficulties
  • Thyroid issues
  • Low fertility
  • Some cancers

Are residual pesticides on food a problem?”

According to Dr. Phillip Landrigan, a pediatrician and epidemiologist at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York, “Even low levels of pesticide exposure can be harmful to infants, babies, and young children. So when possible, parents and caregivers should take steps to lower children’s exposures to pesticides while still feeding them diets rich in healthy fruits and vegetables.” [6]

Is the EWG list relevant to Australian consumers?

There is much debate about this. Some commentators like Lorraine Haase, of Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), in my view optimistically, argues that the EWG’s Dirty Dozen Clean Fifteen list isn’t relevant to Australians. This is because “we use different herbicides and pesticides and we set very strict limits on residue limits, as well as the minimum time between spraying a crop and harvesting, to minimise any impact.” [3] But other commentators like Friends of the Earth and organic producers argue that Dirty Dozen Clean Fifteen is relevant, as a guide, because:

  • While pesticides are harmful at high doses, there is little research on the long-term health effects of low-level exposure to multiple pesticides
  • Many of the pesticides in common use disrupt our hormone disruptors. This means they mimic hormones like estrogen and can depress fertility in males and females.  A recent Harvard Health study suggests that typical exposure to pesticide residues on food is reducing fertility. [5]
  • There is insufficient research to reassure me that some of the non-organic foods we eat we are worth the health risks associated with the pesticide residues on them. In particular, I’m thinking of  foods like strawberries
  • The precautionary principle suggests that you take care to minimise pesticide exposure of young children with immature immune systems
  • Some of our food is imported from countries with far more lenient pesticide regulations – notably India and China. Chine uses 3-5 times as much pesticides per hectare as most other countries [2]
  • From July 2018 foods sold in Australia labeling better identifies the country of origin of most foods, so it pays to read the fine print [4]
  • If an ingredient is under five percent of a food in Australia, it does not have to be listed on the label

Why buy organic?

Yes, organic food is much more expensive in some countries like Australia. So it is worth the extra expense? Resoundingly yes, if you can afford it. It tastes so much better, it contains more nutrients and less water. Organic food avoids exposing your children to a cocktail of pesticides which their as yet unquantified effects.

When I was a child in the 1950’s I never saw anyone who was Autistic, allergic or had asthma. We only eat organic food and life was much simpler. Today, the average classroom contains many kids with learning difficulties, allergies, asthma, and obesity. How much of this change is due to our affluent diet? How much reflects lifestyle or chemical exposure (think BPA, Teflon etc)?

What can you do? (same as what we do)

  • Buy an organic food at your local farmers market
  • Order a home delivery box of fruit and vegetables – in Canberra, we get ours from ARC organics
  • Carefully read all the labels of the foods we buy
  • Shop at an online platform supplying food containing no nasties, we use InnerOrigin
  • You can avoid nasties in food by using the awesome Aussie Chemical Maze Smartphone app
  • Wash your non-organic fruit and vegetables in vinegar
  • Avoid foods with a long list of additives
  • Avoid those foods which your great-grandmother would not have recognised as a food

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Further reading

 Photo by Dana DeVolk on Unsplash