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Should I worry about pesticides in my food?

washing fruit

Of all my worries as a mom — potty training, screen time and catching the stomach flu, the one thing I feel as if I have slightly more control over is giving my daughter healthy foods.

As a busy family, our on-the-go healthy breakfast is whole-grain cereal, usually Cheerios. Those tiny 0s were one of my daughter's first foods as a baby.

Yet this spring, I saw concerning news about our favorite breakfast cereal. Supposedly, an environmental activist group claims it found samples of Cheerios that tested positive for trace amounts of a pesticide.

Fear-mongering news always makes great click-bait on social media. However, experts say we shouldn’t let publicity stunts or worries about pesticides stop us from eating our favorite healthy foods, including our beloved Cheerios.

It turns out, the pesticide levels these activists claim to have found are ex­tremely small, in parts per billion, and are well below safe levels established by federal agencies, explains Joel Coats, a professor of entomology and expert on toxicology at Iowa State University.

To put it in perspective, one part per billion is comparable to one drop of water in an Olympic-size swimming pool.

“I basically ignore those (activist claims) and advise my kids and grandkids to eat their Cheerios,” Coats says. “(Federal agencies) set these pesticide tolerance levels to be very conservative, and any trace amounts (found) are extremely low or well below any limit that would exceed the safe limits.”

Coats explains that federal agencies have strict restrictions and monitoring in place to ensure that our food is safe from pesticides and other contaminants.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) pesticide monitoring program, which tests for 700 different pesticide residues, is considered the “gold standard” for testing by scientists worldwide.

In its most recent report, the FDA found that 99% of domestic foods tested in fiscal year 2016 were well below the safe level for pesticides residues. And more than 52% of foods tested had no detectable levels of pesticides.

If a food product does test above FDA’s safe limit for pesticide residues, then the food is recalled and removed from the food supply.

“Very rarely is there something in the news about something exceeding those levels,” Coats says.

Coats adds that, in reality, we are all exposed to chemicals every day in small doses. However, our bodies are naturally good at detoxifying and screening chem­icals out of our systems, he says.

“If you look at our diet, there are 100 different chemicals in coffee, or anything else, that we are exposed to every day. When we pump gas, we are exposed to small amounts of chemicals,” Coats says.

“But toxicologists all swear by one dogma: The dose makes the poison. So some (chemical) at a very low level is not toxic at all, but at a high dose, it can be a serious concern.”

"If you look at our diet, there are 100 different chemicals in coffee, or anything else, we are exposed to every day. ... But toxicologists all swear by one dogma: The dose makes the poison."

Joel Coats, professor of entomology and toxicology expert at Iowa State University.

Chemicals, including pesticides and fungicides, are necessary tools in agriculture and food production, Coats explains.

Without pesticides, farmers would lose a significant portion of their crops, which would create food waste and rising costs at the grocery store.

Pesticides also help protect food safety. For example, insect damage to an ear of corn can make the grain more susceptible to fungus that is toxic to people and farm animals, Coats says.

Pesticides and fungicides also help with the safe, long-term storage of important crops, such as potatoes or apples, which are susceptible to mold when taken out of refrigeration. “That’s a case where the health benefits (of fruits and vegetables) can go downhill,” he says.

All pesticides must be approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and are rigorously tested to prove their safety to human health and the environment.

Here in Iowa, farmers and their employees must be certified pest applicators to use most pesticides. Withdrawal restrictions ensure pest­icides aren’t applied immediately before harvest, which minimizes the risk of carryover to the food supply. It is a violation of federal law to use a pesticide in a manner inconsistent with its label directions.

“People can trust that the federal safeguards are there to make sure (pesticides) are safe for people working with them and for their families, communities and environment, as well as the end product to consumers,” Coats says.