Spring is here—time to start looking forward to strawberries. These treasured sweet berries are one of nature's most potent packages of health-defending antioxidants. But are your strawberries also laced with invisible chemicals that could cause cancer? In U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) testing, a single sample of strawberries tested contained 13 different pesticides!
The good news is that in late 2012, the Environmental Protection Agency canceled the use of the go-to, cancer-causing strawberry pesticide methyl iodide in the U.S. That was a big win for human health groups because the toxic fumigant endangered farmworkers and families living hear strawberry fields.
But keeping that chemical off of the U.S. market doesn't mean strawberries are completely in the clear. Growers of nonorganic strawberries in California—where nearly 90 percent of the nation's strawberries are produced—continue to pump hazardous substances into fields, including volatile chemicals that readily drift into nearby families' yards. "With names like methyl bromide, chloropicrin, and Telone (1,3-D), these fumigants are linked to cancer, hormone disruption, and developmental problems in children," says soil science expert Margaret Reeves, PhD, senior scientist with Pesticide Action Network. "We have waited far too long for action; California and federal officials need to create a clear roadmap to phase the use of these chemicals out of all agricultural production by 2020."
California's strawberry industry is investing in research for less-toxic alternatives, but the California Department of Pesticide Regulation said that a big shift won't occur unless there are new kinds of crop insurance or grants to mitigate the risk of switching to a newer way of growing strawberries.
Opportunities to convert to greener strawberry cultivation include tools like crop rotation, steam treatment, anaerobic soil disinfections, solarization, and the building of healthier soil in which to sustainably grow strawberry crops over the long term.
In the coming months, California officials will evaluate whether or not to keep several strawberry fumigants on the market or add additional health protections on their use. "It should be clear that current laws and regulations aren't doing enough; over 5.5 million pounds of chloropicrin are applied in California alone, often near schools and homes, including over 650 people in the state that have reported poisonings from the chemical in the last decade," Reeves notes. "The Department of Pesticide Regulation and California Environmental Protection agency will need to take leadership on the issue, which will likely have ripple effects across the entire country."
While fumigants are more of a local issue—those chemicals don't stick around on strawberries—the other pesticides are turning up on nonorganic strawberries in alarming numbers.
For instance, a Pesticide Action Network Analysis of pesticide residues using USDA data found 54 different pesticide residues were detected among strawberry samples. The testing turned up nine known or probable carcinogens, 24 suspected hormone disruptors, 11 neurotoxins, 12 developmental or reproductive toxins, and 19 honeybee toxins. Traces of fungicides captan and pyraclostrobin turned up on more than half of strawberry samples tested.