Note from Our Science & Technology Board

This note from our Science & Technology Advisory Board is in reference to the list of foods to buy organic, as referenced from EWG in our printed haggadot.

The science of toxicology is an ARTT.  No, that is not a misspelling.  It is, however, an easy-to-remember acronym that helps us understand what makes chemicals harmful and what makes certain foods more susceptible to accumulating toxic substances than others and what the Environmental Working Group’s list of foods with pesticide residues actually means. Residue, by the way, does not mean left over pesticides. Not only are those washed off during processing but the term refers to the breakdown products left in the food after the plant metabolizes the chemicals.

A is for Amount.  It is relatively easy for each of us to understand that if you are exposed to more of something harmful than less, it is not good for you.  It can also stand for the number of chemicals to which we are exposed at a single time.  Some chemical combinations are particularly harmful because they augment each other’s toxic effects, i.e., the effects are synergistic. Yet, that raises some important questions, one of which is answered by the letter “R”.

R is for Rate.  Imagine someone is throwing ping pong balls at you.  If they are only throwing one every few seconds, you will likely be able to catch them without any trouble.  What if, however, those balls are thrown at a rate of 1 every second?  Or what if a whole box of ping pong balls are dumped on you? So, too, with chemical exposures.  The faster the rate of exposure, the less likely your body will be able to cope.  Is this true for all chemicals?  That’s where the first letter “T” comes into play.

T is for Type of chemical.  Not all chemicals are alike.  Some mimic natural substances that your body uses to regulate itself, while others will compete with specific molecules that are necessary for life.  Some cannot be detoxified by the body, others are broken down into something even more toxic.  So, are children and adults equally affected by toxic chemicals? That’s where the second letter “T” is important.

T is also for Time.  Children’s nervous systems are continually developing even into late teenage years to early twenties.  Chemicals that affect the nervous system could be particularly harmful to them.  Alternatively, older adults, whose nervous system is facing all sorts of challenges and whose immune system is much weaker, are also vulnerable to chemical insults.  So, age of exposure is very important to how toxic a chemical will be.

Now, let’s go back to the list of foods to avoid. Keeping in mind ARTT, one can imagine that not all chemical exposures will affect everyone the same way.  It all depends on how and when one comes into contact with which toxic substances and at what rate. Interpreting the list, however, is even more tricky.  Imported food is is often much worse on numbers of pesticides found, numbers of crops affected and whether they violate federal safety standards because most Third World countries have very lax pesticide standards.  ARTT teaches us that it also matters as to not only how many pesticides have been found but which ones and in what concentrations.

According to both the USDA and FDA:

1) the total pesticide level for these crops has been going down,

2) there has been a slow switch to chemicals with less toxicity to humans, if not wildlife,

3) concentrations of some of these residues do not violate current (key word!) federal safety guidelines and

4) we know little, if anything, about the synergistic effects of multiple pesticides in our food which could invalidate the “not toxic level” listing.

All this said, it is not a bad idea to keep this list in mind when shopping for food.  Be an informed shopper because, in the final analysis, it is better to be safe than sorry.

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