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The Top Environmental Contaminants in Your Food (& What You Can do to Avoid Them)

The food you eat is the only source of fuel your body receives to function optimally. Unfortunately, contaminants in what would be otherwise healthy foods are showing up with increasing fervor all over the country.

Apples are one of the most highly pesticide-contaminated fruits. Whenever possible, choose organic apples.

Recently, a bill was introduced that would pre-empt all state food safety regulations that are more stringent than federal standards. This bill's goal claims to be to ensure uniform food standards for all of the country. As it stands, certain states have stricter standards when it comes to food warnings than others -- such as a New York law that limits the levels of certain contaminants in food packages and an Alaska law that requires farm-raised salmon to be labeled as such.

The National Uniformity for Food Coalition, which is made up of trade associations, supermarket chains and food manufacturers, supports the bill and stated on their Web site, "Food cannot be safe in one state and unsafe in another."

However, the bill, rather than ensuring safe standards in all states, would essentially remove some safer standards and replace them with nothing, as federal standards do not exist. Critics include state departments of agriculture and food officials, the National Conference of State Legislatures, the California attorney general and many consumer advocacy groups.

Said Erik D. Olson, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, "What the bill would do is assure the lowest common denominator of protection. Cheaper food that has poisonous chemicals in it is no bargain."

Top Contaminants in Food

The following toxins are the ones you're most likely to come across in your diet.


In a study that analyzed pesticide residues on over 94,000 food samples:

  • Pesticides were found on 31 percent to 73 percent of conventionally grown fruits and vegetables.

  • From 12 percent to 62 percent of the samples had multiple pesticide residues.

Although the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has established upper tolerance levels for the amount of pesticide residues allowed on foods, these tolerances do not take into account multiple residues on one food. Pesticides are known to cause many health problems including:

  • Cancer

  • Infertility

  • Birth defects,

  • Neurologic problems

  • Respiratory ailments


The primary way humans are exposed to methylmercury, an organic form of mercury, is by eating fish. One of the primary health concerns is for pregnant and nursing women, or women who may become pregnant, as mercury can harm a developing child. One study, for instance, found neuropsychological deficiencies in children who had higher levels of mercury in their cord blood sample, including deficiencies in:

  • Language

  • Memory

  • Attention

  • Motor function

  • Visual-spatial functions

Recent studies have also found a connection between increased mercury levels and heart disease. Further, while the omega-3 fatty acids in fish are known to be protective of the heart, research suggests that mercury may counteract these effects.

In this case, your best choice would be to take a high-quality fish oil, which would be purified of mercury and still provide you with omega-3.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the EPA have issued the following fish-consumption guidelines for women of childbearing age, pregnant women, nursing mothers and young children:

  • Do not eat Shark, Swordfish, King Mackerel, or Tilefish because they contain high levels of mercury.

  • Eat up to 12 ounces (2 average meals) a week of a variety of fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury.

    • Five of the most commonly eaten fish that are low in mercury are shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, and catfish.

    • Another commonly eaten fish, albacore ("white") tuna has more mercury than canned light tuna. So, when choosing your two meals of fish and shellfish, you may eat up to 6 ounces (one average meal) of albacore tuna per week.

  • Check local advisories about the safety of fish caught by family and friends in your local lakes, rivers, and coastal areas. If no advice is available, eat up to 6 ounces (one average meal) per week of fish you catch from local waters, but don't consume any other fish during that week.

Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPS)

POPs include dioxins, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and pentachlorophenol (PCP). Although some of these chemicals have been banned, they still exist in the environment and accumulate in the human body over time. The primary route of exposure is through eating animal products such as meat, high-fat dairy products and fish, as POPs accumulate in fatty tissues.

Similar to mercury, animals become contaminated with POPs by eating plants or animal products that contain them. These compounds are particularly dangerous to fetuses and young children, and have been associated with:

  • Low birth weight

  • Negative effects on the immune system

  • Negative effects on neurodevelopment

  • Decreased motor development

  • Lower verbal IQ scores

  • Poorer verbal comprehension

  • Decreased attention spans

Because these chemicals accumulate over time, women must have low body levels of POPs prior to pregnancy to protect their children. Experts recommend eating low-fat meats and dairy products and following the above fish consumption recommendations to do so.

Evidence suggests that mercury in fish may cancel out the heart-healthy benefits of their omega-3 fats.

Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDE)

PBDEs are widely used as flame retardants in construction materials, textiles and home goods, and environmental concentrations have been doubling every four to six years. Animal studies have found that they affect:

  • Thyroid function

  • Spontaneous motor function

  • Learning

  • Memory

  • Liver and kidney weight

Studies that have examined PBDEs in breast milk suggest that levels in humans are increasing. One study of breast milk samples from over 40,000 women found that their concentrations of PBDEs increased from 0.07 ng to 4.02 ng per gram of lipids over 25 years.

Like mercury and POPs, eating a diet low in animal fats and large fish can help to reduce your exposure to PBDEs.

Lowering Contaminants in Your Diet

As it stands, the best way to ensure that the food you eat is as safe as possible is to educate yourself about potential contaminants -- and avoid those foods. Eating organic produce, meats and other foods will also go a long way toward reducing your exposure to these toxins. If you don't have access to organic foods, you can reduce your exposure to pesticides by avoiding the most-contaminated produce below and focusing instead on the least contaminated.

Top 12 Pesticide-Contaminated
Fruits and Vegetables

  • Apples

  • Bell peppers

  • Celery

  • Cherries

  • Imported grapes

  • Nectarines

  • Peaches

  • Pears

  • Potatoes

  • Red raspberries

  • Spinach

  • Strawberries

Top 12 Least Contaminated
Fruits and Vegetables

  • Asparagus

  • Avocadoes

  • Bananas

  • Broccoli

  • Cauliflower

  • Corn (sweet)

  • Kiwi

  • Mangoes

  • Onions

  • Papaya

  • Pineapples

  • Peas (sweet)

Recommended Reading

Pharmaceutical Pollution: What it is, and How Pharmaceutical Pollution Threatens Your Health

What Exactly Does it Mean When Foods are "Hydrogenated," and What Risks Can it Pose?


Bill Could Pre-Empt States' Food Safety Rules

The Effects of Environmental Contaminants in Food on Women's Health

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