What is the “Dirty Dozen”? How to Know if You’ve Been Exposed to Harmful Chemicals on Fruits and Vegetables

NEWS What is the “Dirty Dozen”? How to Know if You’ve Been Exposed to Harmful Chemicals on Fruits and Vegetables
  • puslished-byJordan Terry
  • publish-dateOctober 13, 2021 @ 3:10 pm
  • categoryChemical Exposure, Health, Safety

The use of pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals on fruits and vegetables has long been a concern for consumers. To shed light on the issue, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) releases a list of twelve fruits and vegetables every year which contain the highest levels of pesticides and traces of chemicals, the “Dirty Dozen”

In 2021, the Dirty Dozen listed the following fruits and vegetables as containing the highest amounts of pesticides and other chemical residues:

  1. Strawberries
  2. Spinach
  3. Kale/Collard/Mustard greens
  4. Nectarines
  5. Apples
  6. Grapes
  7. Cherries
  8. Peaches
  9. Pears
  10. Bell and hot peppers
  11. Celery
  12. Tomatoes



Types of Chemicals Used on Produce

Various chemicals are used on produce for a number of reasons during the growing and harvesting process. In short, these chemicals are used to control, prevent, and eliminate pests and disease carriers.



Pesticides refer to all chemicals used to control and eliminate pests and disease carriers. There are many types of pesticides used to combat certain pests. Examples include:

  1. Herbicides
  2. Fungicides



Herbicides are a type of pesticide used to kill, control, prevent, or manipulate vegetation that may harm an agricultural product. Herbicides also have common applications outside of farming in lawn care, golf course management, parks and recreation, forest and preservation efforts, and to treat aquatic vegetation.

While a popular pesticide, herbicides have been known to cause adverse effects on both the landscape they’re applied to and the people near application sites. 



Fungicides are pesticides that kill or prevent the growth of fungi and their spores. They can be used to control fungi that damage plants, such as rusts, mildews, mold, and blights. Fungicides typically damage fungal cell membranes or inhibit energy production within fungal cells.


Other Pesticide Examples



Fertilizers and Harvest Aids

Fertilizers and Harvest Aids are produced and distributed in various ways, ranging from manufactured, chemically based products to fertilizers made from bio-materials.

Most agricultural fertilizers contain the three basic plant nutrients:

  1. Nitrogen
  2. Phosphorus
  3. Potassium


Some fertilizers also contain certain “micronutrients,” such as zinc and other metals. 

While these chemicals have proven to be useful in increasing yields and decreasing the amount of food and plants wasted from invasion of pests and disease, there have been numerous proven cases of adverse health effects caused by chemicals applied to produce. Different segments of the population have felt these adverse health effects in different ways. 



Groups That May Be Exposed to Toxins

The way these chemicals are applied to produce influence what groups of people are affected and how.

Pesticides are applied to produce in different ways depending on the type of pesticide used and the produce desired to be protected. Pesticides can be applied through:

  • Aerial spraying (crop dusters)
  • Soil injection/irrigation
  • Different types of targeting manual spraying


Proximity and duration of exposure to these chemicals matters in judging how a person’s health may be affected. Pesticides, fertilizers, and other chemicals can be ingested, inhaled, or absorbed through skin contact. 

Exposure to pesticides can cause acute (short-term) health effects like shortness of breath, eye irritation, rashes, blisters, nausea, diarrhea, and others depending on pre-existing health conditions. 

Exposure to pesticides can also cause chronic (long-term) health effects like cancer, birth defects, reproductive harm, immunotoxicity, neurological/developmental toxicity, and endocrine system disruption


Farmers and Their Families

Farmers and their families face the risk of consistent and highly concentrated exposure to pesticides and other chemicals used in agriculture. Farmers and their families are the group of people most likely to suffer from chronic, long-term health effects caused by pesticide and chemical exposure. 

Whether through inhalation or dermal absorption, pesticides pose an extreme risk to the health of farmers and their families, but there isn’t much that can be done to curb the risk. 


Pesticide Factory Workers

Workers in pesticide factories also have an inherent risk to exposure from dangerous chemicals and pesticides. Even though they are provided safety gear to reduce exposure, workers often face risk in exposure from concentrated forms of pesticides when they are mixed with water in factory settings. 

The EPA provides guidance for workers on possible risks and ways to prevent exposure through their risk assessment program


Professional Chemical Applicators

Federal law dictates that any person who applies pesticides or chemicals on the Restricted Use Products (RUP) list must be certified in accordance with EPA regulations and state laws. 

Due to the requirements to be certified as a private or commercial chemical applicator, those doing the job professionally should have the utmost knowledge on how to maintain safety precautions while applying pesticides and other chemicals. Regardless, there is still a great risk of exposure posed to those constantly around these often dangerous chemicals. 



Much like professional chemical applicators, pest exterminators are required to go through rigorous certification to handle these often toxic chemicals. Laws and requirements for becoming a certified exterminator vary by state. 


Households Close to Agricultural Fields

Often forgotten about during scientific studies on the effects of pesticide use and spray drift, people who live near farm fields but do not work in the agricultural industry face many health risks from exposure. 

Studies have shown that although exposure is mainly explained by occupational and take-home pathways (i.e., clothes), other modes exist, including inhalation of outdoor air, contamination of house dust, take-home from pets, ingestion of contaminated groundwater, recreation in fields, and eating produce directly from treated fields or from self-production. These risks are indicative of living near farm fields, regardless of working in them and can lead to major health risks especially in children and pregnant women. 


Grocery Workers

Though not many current studies on pesticide exposure risk to grocery store employees are available, a study from 2004 indicated that workers in positions of janitor, stock handler/bagger, bakery/deli clerk, and shipping/receiving handler experienced significantly elevated pesticide poisoning incidence rates. 

This exposure did not lead to chronic or extreme health effects, but caused acute health effects. Exposure generally resulted from handling consumer pesticide products and applying pesticides to products in the store. 


Public Consumers

Exposure to consumers can come in a variety of ways with the most common avenues being mishandling of consumer pesticide products and consumption of products with traces or residues of agricultural pesticides. 

It is nearly impossible to avoid pesticide residues on fruits and vegetables bought in grocery stores. The National Pesticide Information Center provides guidance on how to properly wash fruits and vegetables in attempting to lower pesticide consumption. 

In regard to pesticide use at home and in a garden, the EPA provides consumer guidance on the Do’s and Don’ts of Pest Control


Large Geographic Areas

Large areas of land near agricultural industries can suffer from exposure to toxic chemicals and pesticides. These chemicals generally enter the body through airborne transmission and water/food contamination. 

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) used in farming operations have been linked to cancer, heart disease, birth defects, and numerous other health complications. The two types of PFAS, Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and Per-fluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS), have been found in the environment and in drinking water. 

While U.S. regulations have ended PFOA and PFOS production, the chemicals do not break down and have remained in the environment in the water, soil, and air. PFAS have been found in the blood of people and animals worldwide and in some food products.

PFAS have also been commonly used for non-stick cookware, stain-resistant fabrics, firefighting foams, cleaning products, paints, and numerous other products. 



Types of Exposure and Toxicity

There are 3 types of pesticide exposure to be aware of:

  1. Dermal
  2. Inhalation
  3. Ingestion


Dermal exposure is the most common and entails absorption through direct contact of the skin to the chemical.

Inhalation is exposure to pesticides through breathing vapors produced by the chemicals.

Ingestion occurs when drinking, eating, or smoking near chemicals, or by eating foods or drinking beverages containing pesticide residues.


There are 2 types of toxicity measurements, as mentioned previously:

  1. Acute
  2. Chronic


Acute toxicity refers to the “minor” symptoms experienced after exposure to a chemical.

Chronic toxicity refers to major, long-term health effects like cancer, birth defects, and other diseases. 



Adverse Health Effects

Health effects from pesticide exposure range from minor, short-term symptoms to major, long-term and debilitating illnesses. These health effects vary in accordance to the variety of pesticide used, duration of exposure, and type of exposure. 

Adverse health effects are proven to be correlated with high levels of exposure. Some health effects can be correlated with pesticide use, but the links between the health effect and pesticide exposure may be less concrete due to limiting or ulterior factors. 

Some examples of health effects are: 


Parkinson’s Disease

Parkinson’s Disease has been linked to Paraquat exposure in farm fields. Paraquat is an agricultural herbicide that has been known to cause Parkinson’s Disease. Although banned in residential areas by the EPA, Paraquat is one of the most popular herbicides in the agricultural industry across the United States and is still affecting farmers to this day. 


Allergic Reactions

Some individuals can develop allergic sensitization to certain chemicals present in pesticides.

There are 2 types of allergic sensitization:

  1. Skin
  2. Respiratory


Studies show that pesticides may also cause food allergies. 


Gastrointestinal Issues

Studies have confirmed that exposure to pesticides, especially by way of ingestion, can cause gastrointestinal issues. Chronic exposure to pesticides can adversely affect gut microbiota, the bacteria and microorganisms which live in human digestive tracts. Gut microbiota influence the onset of certain disorders and diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and colon cancer. 


Neurotoxicity and Comatose States

It has been found that many pesticides can be neurotoxic, altering the activity of the nervous system. Severe cases of pesticide exposure have lead to muscle weakness and twitches, bronchospasm, and changes in heart rate and can progress to convulsions and coma. 



Pesticide exposure has been linked to a number of different cancers. Most studies on non-Hodgkin lymphoma and leukemia showed positive associations with pesticide exposure. Solid tumours also show the same links to pesticide exposure. 

Exposure to Roundup, a popular herbicide, has been linked to cancer and other adverse health effects but is still widely used and sold across the country. 


Birth Injuries

Birth defects and birth injuries have been correlated with pesticide exposure to pregnant women. Studies suggest an association of pesticide exposure in pregnant women to holoprosencephaly, the most common malformation in the forebrain of humans. 

Chlorpyrifos, previously one of the most common pesticides in the United States before being banned in August 2021, has been linked to to a number of birth defects in children including ADHD, autism, brain cancer, down syndrome, endocrine disruption, premature death, seizure disorders, and severe developmental problems.



Death can occur from severe exposure to pesticides, and ingestion is often a method for suicide. The National Institutes of Health report an average of 23 deaths per year due to pesticide exposure. 

If death results from exposure to pesticides, a wrongful death lawsuit may be an avenue to achieve justice for the loss of your loved one.



What to Do if You Suspect Wrongful Exposure 

If you are exposed to pesticides or other dangerous, toxic chemicals, seek healthcare immediately and take the advice of professionals in the field. If exposure was a result of negligence or by exposure to chemicals known to cause adverse health effects, legal action through a chemical exposure lawsuit may be possible. 




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