New research by Friends of the Earth, published in a peer-reviewed journal this weekend, shows that up to 220 young children a day could have been exposed to potentially dangerous levels of pesticides just from eating a single apple or pear.
The research also showed that internationally agreed safety levels on pesticides can be breached even when the legal limits on pesticides were met. Imported produce was more likely to contain high pesticide levels than homegrown fruit.
The research, conducted with two leading experts on pesticide exposure, Professor Andrew Watterson of Stirling University and Dr Vyvyan Howard of Liverpool University used mathematical modeling to measure exposure to pesticides for children aged between 18 months and four years old. Using the Government's own data on pesticide residues found on apples and pears, and information on the quantities of apples and pears eaten by young children from the National Dietary Survey, the study found that between 10 and 220 young children could be exposed pesticide residues at levels which could pose immediate and long term threats to health. Apples and pears were chosen because they are eaten frequently by young children.
The Government regularly monitors fruit and vegetables for pesticide residues. But instead of testing individual items of produce, the Government tests blended batches, with official figures only reporting the average for the batch (eg 10 apples). Research in the 1990s showed that some fruit and vegetables contain much higher levels of pesticides than others, with potentially no residues in one piece of fruit and a very high level of residues in another.
Friends of the Earth's research used modeling to examine the likelihood of children eating a piece of fruit containing high pesticide residues. The results showed that, based on the Government's residue data for 2000 to 2002, young children can be exposed to residues at levels above internationally agreed safety limits. The model used real rates of fruit consumption, taken from the Government's national diet survey, and so the results are relevant for children who eat normal quantities of fruit - the most it was assumed that any child would eat was a single apple or pear.
Although the Government knows that high levels occur in individual fruit, it continues to tell the public that there are no health concerns as long as legal limits are met.
Friends of the Earth's Senior Food Researcher and one of the authors of the report, Emily Diamand, said:
"Parents will be shocked to discover that pesticide safety limits set to protect young children can be exceeded just by a child eating one apple or pear. The problem of high residues occurring in individual fruits or vegetables is well known to the Government but they continue to issue bland reassurances that there is no risk to health. This problem must not be ignored any longer. The Government must act quickly to make sure that legal limits for these pesticides protect consumer safety and do more to help farmers reduce their pesticide use"
The pesticides studied are carbendazim (banned in Belgium from this month), dithiocarbamates and phosmet which all have acute effects (ie they can have an effect from a short term exposure). Phosmet is not licensed for UK use so only occurs on imported fruit.
Carbendazim and dithiocarbamates are suspected hormone disruptors. Phosmet is an organophosphate insecticide, which has the potential to damage the nervous system and is a potential carcinogen. While there may be no obvious immediate effects from consuming these chemicals at high levels, there may be long term implications. Children are particularly susceptible because they are still growing and developing.
Professor Andrew Watterson of Stirling University said:
"Very little is known about the long term effects on the immune, hormone or nervous systems when young children are exposed to short term high levels of pesticides. But the pesticides found in this research all have the potential to cause damage to health. The Government must take a precautionary approach and ensure that internationally agreed safety limits are not breached"
Because safety limits were breached even though legal limits were not exceeded, apple growers would not have been alerted to any problem with levels of pesticides in their fruit. Friends of the Earth wants the government to take urgent action to lower legal limits to ensure that safety limits are not breached. The research found that UK apples and pears were less likely to exceed safety levels than imported produce. But Friends of the Earth is calling on the Government and supermarkets to do more to help growers reduce the use of pesticides further.
Kent Apple grower, and member of the British Independent Fruit Growers Association David Budd said:
"I'm concerned that it appears from this research that safety levels for apples and pears could be breached even when legal limits have been met. We go to great lengths to minimize inputs and are pleased that these efforts are reflected in the results that show English apples and pears are a safer option than imported. It would assist growers if the Government were to actively help the introduction of safer alternatives"
Friends of the Earth is urging parents not to stop giving apples and pears to their children as fresh fruit is an important part of a healthy diet. Parents can choose organic produce but it is not affordable to everyone. Peeling and washing fruit may reduce but not eliminate residues.