Pesticides and Health: What You Need to Know

“Pesticide” can be an ominous sounding word to the average consumer.  The suffix “cide,” which comes from Latin cidere meaning “to kill,” has its roots in Shakespearean literature (“Beware the ides of March.”)  But in today’s modern world, it has very little to do with Shakespeare. Pesticides have come under scrutiny by some groups and individuals expressing concerns about everything from  food safety to nutritional quality to children’s health. However, the facts about pesticides and how they are used safely in food production often are not in the headlines. Instead, the latest study with the flashiest headline is shared without the context of how it fits in to the overall body of research, or without a proper critique of its methods to determine its credibility. Food Insight addresses the myths and facts and shares what you need to know about pesticide safety, use, and health.

What are pesticides and why are they used?

Pesticides include a broad class of synthetic and “natural” compounds that help to protect crops from devastating pests and weeds. Types of pesticides include insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, and rodenticides. Whether conventional or organic, farmers safely and judiciously use pesticides as necessary to control insects, weeds, and fungus (Organic farming does permit the use of certain pesticides).  Coupled with droughts and other weather-related natural disasters, insects, pests, and weeds can prevent food crops from reaching their full productivity, resulting in lower yield, which can lead to increased food costs. 


 Why are there pesticide residues on foods?

Pesticide residues are very small amounts of pesticides that may remain on food from their application to crops while being grown on the farm.  Some crops are less susceptible to pesticide residues, such as those with a husk (e.g. corn), shell (e.g. peanuts), or skin (e.g. bananas). However, even those without an outer layer are safe to eat, and simply washing raw fruits and vegetables before eating them removes most traces of pesticide residues.

Acceptable safe levels of pesticide residues in foods that are found not to be harmful are established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for each type of pesticide, based on considerations of both the population as a whole, as well as subgroups such as children.  Both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the USDA have ongoing monitoring of pesticide residues on foods in place. 

The FDA uses the Total Diet Study to determine pesticide residues in foods.  The study limits pesticide residues to five to ten times lower than is found to be safe.  In short, these residues are regulated to levels that are considered safe based on the average daily food intake of both adults and children.

Do pesticides cause autism in children?

A recent study (Shelton, et al., 2014) attempting to link pesticide use to autism in children drew media attention and raised concerns among moms and other consumers. However, the study made inaccurate and questionable associations between the proximity of children to pesticide use and neurodevelopmental disorders. Merely using observational cues such as these cannot be used to demonstrate causation. 

Experts called the study “inaccurate” and “misleading” to the public.  According to Dr. Penny Fenner-Crisp, retired former Senior Science Advisor, Deputy Director, and Director of the Health Effects Division of the Office of Pesticide Programs at the EPA, “The study does not allow one to conclude with any degree of certainty that exposure to individual or classes of pesticides or insecticides results in increased rates of autism and other developmental disabilities in the offspring of potentially-exposed mothers.” To determine any possible adverse health effects would require a much more robust study, with measurements of indicators such as biomarkers in blood or urine (Chang et al. 2014).

While the conclusions of this study raise interesting questions, it should be re-examined by credible environmental exposure experts before raising unnecessary and undue concerns among consumers and especially moms.


Both conventional and organic farmers use pesticides only when necessary.  Whether synthetic or natural, they must be used in compliance with regulatory standards to ensure continued safety.

Return to current issue.