Blueberries, renowned among nutritionists for their anti-inflammatory properties, have been added to this year’s Dirty Dozen list of nonorganic produce with the highest pesticide levels, joining fiber-rich green beans, according to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization dedicated to environmental health.
The 2023 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, published by the organization, analyzed data from 46,569 samples of 46 fruits and vegetables tested by the US Department of Agriculture from 1998 to 2016. The USDA staffers who conduct the testing mimic consumer practices by washing, peeling, or scrubbing the produce before examining it for 251 different pesticides.
The “Dirty Dozen” List for 2023 Similar to 2022, strawberries and spinach maintained their top positions on the Dirty Dozen list, followed by three leafy greens: kale, collard, and mustard. Next on the list were peaches, pears, nectarines, apples, grapes, bell and hot peppers, cherries, blueberries, and green beans.
The report revealed that a total of 210 pesticides were found on these 12 foods. Kale, collard, and mustard greens contained the highest number of different pesticides, with 103 types, followed by hot and bell peppers with 101.
However, it’s important to note that these associations were evident even at pollution levels below the current national ambient air quality standards.
Notably, some of the USDA’s tests indicated traces of pesticides that have been banned by the Environmental Protection Agency. The report emphasized the need for stricter federal regulation and oversight of these chemicals.
“Pesticides are designed to be toxic,” stated Jane Houlihan, former senior vice president of research for EWG, who was not involved in the report. “They are meant to harm living organisms, and this inherent toxicity has implications for children’s health, including potential risks for hormone dysfunction, cancer, and harm to the developing brain and nervous system,” added Houlihan, who currently serves as the research director for Healthy Babies, Bright Futures, an organization dedicated to reducing babies’ exposure to neurotoxic chemicals.
While there isn’t a definite link between dementia and particle pollution, co-author Zhang believes it’s important for people to take action now to limit their exposure due to the various health problems that air pollution can cause.
More than 55 million individuals worldwide suffer from dementia, and an additional 10 million develop it each year, according to the World Health Organization. Given the aging population and other health factors such as obesity, smoking, and high blood pressure, this number is projected to increase significantly. In 2021, the Alzheimer’s Association highlighted the escalating levels of air pollution and growing cases of dementia worldwide as serious public health crises.
The new study cannot pinpoint the exact mechanism connecting particle pollution and dementia, but scientists have proposed some theories.
These minuscule pollution particles might be entering the brain through the nose and causing neuronal cell death linked to dementia. Additionally, particle pollution could be altering inflammatory proteins that impact the brain.
Dr. Masashi Kitazawa, an associate professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of California, Irvine, speculated that pollution might be having an indirect effect. Scientists know that exposure to particle pollution can lead to heart conditions and vascular issues, both of which are risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
“Could this be causing cardiovascular failure that results in reduced oxygen supply to the brain, subsequently accelerating dementia? Or is the particulate matter entering the brain and causing some neurotoxic reaction? We still don’t know,” said Kitazawa, who was not involved in the new study.
The best air purifiers The best air purifiers to help you stay healthy, according to experts Regardless, Kitazawa emphasized that this research indicates a correlation, but it doesn’t definitively establish a direct causal link between air pollution and dementia.
“I don’t want the general public to panic,” Kitazawa cautioned. Rather, he highlighted the need for further research to fully understand this connection.
Both Kitazawa and Finch’s research labs are actively investigating this connection. Finch’s research has shown that air particles from fossil fuels can increase the brain’s levels of amyloid protein, which is associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
“Overall, I believe there’s reason to take this association seriously,” Finch concluded.
Other studies have also identified a similar association between particle pollution and dementia.
A 2016 study of 6.6 million people in Canada found that individuals living within 164 feet of a major road were 7% more likely to develop dementia than those living 984 feet away, where levels of fine particulate matter were up to 10 times lower.
An English study discovered that adults residing in areas with the highest annual air pollution concentrations had a 1.4 times higher risk of dementia than those in areas with the lowest annual concentrations.
In California, a study revealed that older women exposed to higher air pollution levels performed worse on cognitive tests compared to those exposed to lower levels of pollution. Brain scans also showed shrinkage in regions of the brain typically affected by Alzheimer’s disease.
Despite the absence of a definite link between particle pollution and dementia, Zhang, the co-author, believes individuals should take steps now to reduce their exposure due to the myriad other health problems associated with air pollution.
Many countries have implemented laws and incentives to curb air pollution, yet nearly the entire global population breathes air that surpasses the air quality limits set by the World Health Organization. The number of days categorized as “very unhealthy” or “hazardous” air quality has risen over the years, primarily due to the climate crisis. A recent study found that exposure to this type of pollution resulted in an additional 107,000 premature deaths in the US alone in 2011.
At an individual level, concerned individuals can consider choosing conventionally grown fruits and vegetables from the Environmental Working Group’s “Clean 15” list, which includes crops with the lowest pesticide levels. The report noted that nearly 65% of the foods on this list had no detectable pesticide levels.
Avocados topped the “Clean 15” list for 2023, followed by sweet corn. The rest of the list comprised pineapple, onions, papaya, frozen sweet peas, asparagus, honeydew melon, kiwi, cabbage, mushrooms, mangoes, sweet potatoes, watermelon, and carrots.
While organic foods are not inherently more nutritious, they generally have minimal to no pesticide residue, offering a healthier alternative. If choosing organic isn’t feasible or affordable, thoroughly washing and peeling produce can help reduce pesticide exposure. It’s important to rinse produce before peeling to prevent transferring dirt and bacteria from the knife to the fruit or vegetable.
The US Food and Drug Administration also suggests handwashing produce with warm water and soap for 20 seconds before and after preparing it, as well as using a clean vegetable brush to scrub firm produce like apples and melons. Drying produce with a clean cloth or paper towel can further reduce the presence of bacteria.