Pesticide Spraying
A farm worker sprays insecticide on newly planted strawberries on farm in California. Strawberries have among the highest levels of pesticide residues of any commercially-grown fruits or vegetables.

Pesticides are a group of chemicals produced for the purpose of killing or otherwise deterring “pest” species. The word pesticide may refer to insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, or other pest control formulations. Because pesticides are widely used throughout the world, drift from where they are applied, and can persist in the environment, they can also be found in our foods.

Because pesticides are designed to be toxic, they inherently have adverse health effects on animals and humans—even at low levels—and can remain present in the environment after the initial application.

Pesticide residues can be found in virtually all conventionally-grown (non-organic) produce. Though much safer than conventional produce, even fruits and vegetables labeled as 100% organic can contain trace amounts of pesticides because the chemicals can drift on wind and water currents.

Pesticides belonging to the class known as organochlorine pesticides build up in the fat of animals and can be found in meat, dairy, and fish. DDT, now banned in the United States, is a notable example of an organochlorine pesticide. Endosulfan, banned by the United States EPA in 2010 is used in agricultural production worldwide. Many studies have linked organochlorine pesticide exposure with consumption of contaminated animal products, mostly meat, dairy, fish, and marine mammals.

Some subsistence foods traditionally harvested by Alaska Natives are contaminated with pesticides and other synthetic chemicals that have traveled thousands of miles on ocean and air currents. These persistent organic pollutants (POPs) persist in the north and accumulate in the fats of Arctic animals.

Health Effects of Some Common Pesticides

Pesticides widely used in commercial agriculture have been linked to adverse health effects including cancers, delayed development, interference with the hormone system, malfunctions of the nervous system and other effects.

The health effects of pesticide exposure can vary based on the specific pesticide and the level of exposure. Below is a summary of some of the health effects linked to common pesticides.

  • Organochlorines (e.g. DDT and Endosulfan): Many organochlorines are endocrine disruptors, meaning they can interfere with the normal functioning of the hormone system. Numerous studies have also linked organochlorine pesticide exposures to cancers. Organochlorines are known to accumulate in the fats of Arctic animals and can contaminate traditional subsistence foods.
  • Organophosphates (e.g. Malathion): In humans, prenatal exposure to Malathion has been associated with abnormal reflexes, delayed development, and an increase in attention deficits and hyperactivity.
  • Pyrethroids (e.g. Permethrin): Studies of the health effects of Permethrin show that it is an endocrine disrupting chemical and that it may aid in the progression of some cancers.
  • Carbamates (e.g. Carbaryl): Carbamates have been linked to malfunctions of the nervous system and may contribute to some cancers.

Consumption of contaminated foods is just one of the many ways people may be exposed to pesticides in their daily lives. Visit the Home and Yard/Garden sections of our website for further information.

Safer Alternatives

Visit our Safer Alternatives page to learn more about how you can make toxic-free food choices.