Dear EarthTalk: How do I learn about what pesticides may be on the food I eat?
-- Beatrice Olson, Cleveland, OH
Along with the rise in the popularity of organic food has come an increased awareness about the dangers lurking on so-called “conventionally produced” (that is, with chemical pesticides and fertilizers) foods.
|Pesticide Action Network's “What’s On My Food” website and iPhone app
help consumers know specifically which pesticide residues are likely
ending up on their foods (and in their bloodstreams).Credit: Pesticide
“There is a growing consensus in the scientific community that small doses of pesticides and other chemicals can have adverse effects on health, especially during vulnerable periods such as fetal development and childhood,” reports author and physician Andrew Weil, a leading voice for so-called integrative medicine combining conventional and alternative medical practices. He adds that keeping one’s family healthy isn’t the only reason to avoid foods produced using chemical inputs: “Pesticide and herbicide use contaminates groundwater, ruins soil structures and promotes erosion, and may be a contributor to ‘colony collapse disorder’, the sudden and mysterious die-off of pollinating honeybees that threatens the American food supply.”
In general, fruits and vegetables with an outer layer of skin or rind that can be peeled and discarded are the safest in terms of pesticide residues. Most pesticides are sprayed on the outside of produce. So if you are going to toss the rind of that cantaloupe, you might as well save money and buy a conventional version. But a red pepper would be a different story: For those items consider it money well spent to go organic.
The non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG) lists a “dirty dozen” of fruits and vegetables with the highest pesticide load so that consumers know to look for organic varieties of them when possible. The dirty dozen are: apples, celery, strawberries, peaches, spinach, nectarines, grapes, sweet bell peppers, potatoes, blueberries, lettuce and kale/collard greens.
Another non-profit working hard to raise awareness about pesticide residues on foods is the Pesticide Action Network (PAN). The group’s recently launched website and accompanying iPhone app called “What’s On My Food” helps consumers know specifically which pesticide residues are likely ending up on their foods (and in their bloodstreams). In creating the database, PAN linked pesticide food residue data with the toxicology for each chemical and made the combined information easily searchable. “Pesticides are a public health problem requiring public engagement to solve,” the group reports, adding that “What’s On My Food” can be an important tool in raising awareness.
While the website version of “What’s On My Food” is helpful for advance planning, the iPhone app is handy while plying the supermarket produce aisles to help decide whether to go for organic vegetables or stick with the cheaper conventional ones. For instance, the database shows that conventionally grown collard greens likely contains residues of some 46 different chemicals including nine known/probable carcinogens, 25 suspected hormone disruptors, 10 neurotoxins and eight developmental/reproductive toxins—not to mention 25 different compounds known to be harmful to honeybees. Spending a little quality time on the website or app is enough to drive anyone to more organic food purchasing.
Dear EarthTalk: One of the objections to wind power has been that the turbines can kill birds. Has there been some progress in developing bird-friendly wind power? -- Marcie Mahoney, Boston, MA
|The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service estimates that almost
a half million birds are killed each year in the U.S. by
wind turbines. In March 2012 the agency released new
federal guidelines that steer wind turbines away from
vital habitat and toward land already marked by
Bird collisions have been one of the primary negatives of the recent growth in wind power across the United States and beyond. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) estimates that almost a half million birds are killed each year in the U.S. by wind turbines. “Birds can die in collisions with the turbine blades, towers, power lines, or related structures, and can also be impacted through habitat destruction from the siting of turbines, power lines, and access roads,” the non-profit American Bird Conservancy reports. “Some birds, such as sage-grouse, are particularly sensitive to the presence of turbines, and can be scared away from their breeding grounds several miles away from a wind development.”
In response to this growing problem, the USFWS released new federal guidelines in March 2012 for land-based wind developers trying to avoid or minimize impacts to birds and their habitats. The guidelines are voluntary at this point, but U.S. wind developers interested in a smoother ride through various permitting processes and the blessing of environmental groups—several were consulted extensively in drawing up the new guidelines—are doing their best to make their designs and implementations comply.
The federal government’s 22-member Wind Turbine Guidelines Advisory Committee, which included experts from the National Audubon Society, Nature Conservancy, Defenders of Wildlife, Massachusetts Audubon and Bat Conservation International, developed the guidelines. Committee members report they are optimistic that the new guidelines provide a path to better protection for birds and their habitats.
“The guidelines steer wind turbines away from vital habitat…and toward land already marked by development,” says David Yarnold, National Audubon’s President. “They give the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service a place at the table for siting decisions; they help protect sites with high potential risk for birds; and they minimize habitat fragmentation.” He adds that the guidelines are based on the best available science and “provide a roadmap to better bird protections across each of America’s four great flyways.”
Audubon pushed to ensure that the guidelines address habitat fragmentation, one of the biggest potential impacts of wind development on birds. Wind developers that cooperate with the guidelines will avoid dividing important habitats like forests and grasslands, thus maintaining their suitability for wildlife.
“These first-ever federal guidelines are a game-changer and big win for both wildlife and clean energy,” says Yarnold. “By collaborating with conservationists instead of slugging it out, the wind power industry gains vital support to expand and create jobs, and wildlife gets the protection crucial for survival.”
For its part, the American Bird Conservancy would like to take the voluntary out of the guidelines and instead require wind developers to comply. The group recently filed a petition with the U.S. Department of the Interior calling for mandatory rules protecting millions of birds from the negative impacts of wind energy and rewarding responsible wind energy development.