This year’s dirty dozen list is in – and I’m not surprised by the rankings. 

Three years ago, while on my post-college escapade, I worked on an organic farm in Watsonville, California. I, along with seven others, slept in tents on the farm. We fell asleep when the sun set and woke up when the strawberry farm across the way would start spraying. Music would blast over their speakers, and hundreds of humans dressed from head to toe in white hazmat suits would pour out to do their daily duties. 

Watsonville is the strawberry capital of the U.S., so of course, our little farm had them, too. But I didn’t suit up for protection, let alone put shoes on to walk through our strawberry fields. 

That farm across the way was Dole’s strawberry farm. They shut down shortly after I left, but that sight will be ingrained in my mind forever. How can I feel safe eating something that growers needed to protect themselves from while farming?! 

There is nothing like fresh strawberries. At one time, strawberries were the sweet spring and summer treat that you would look forward to in the colder months, but now, due to the increased use of pesticides and other toxic growing methods, cheap strawberries are available all. year. long. 

To understand more about the toxicity of conventionally grown strawberries, let’s take a trip back a couple of years. 

In 2015 and 2016, scientists at the Department of Agriculture found that conventionally grown strawberries contained an average of 7.8 pesticides per sample compared to the 2.2 pesticides per sample of all other produce. 

This year is no different – conventional strawberries are still at the top of the list – and it might have something to do with what happens before planting. 

Growers sterilize their fields with poisonous nerve gases that kill not only pests and weeds but also every other living organism. What we are learning now is that diversity in soil is crucial for the nutrition of our food and farmable land- injecting soil with poisonous chemicals does not help this cause. 

The USDA tests discovered that even after strawberries are picked, rinsed, and washed, they are still the fresh produce item most likely to be contaminated with pesticide residues. Here are some daunting facts from the USDA’s Pesticides Data Program. From January 2015 to October 2016, scientists tested 1,174 batches of conventional strawberries. 89% of the batches we’re grown in the U.S., one from the Netherlands and the rest from Mexico. 

  • 99% of all samples had residues of at least one pesticide 
  • 30% has residues of 10+ pesticides 
  • Samples showed residues of 81 different pesticides in different combinations 
  • The dirtiest sample had residues of 23 different pesticides 

Now that we know how dirty strawberries can be, let’s dive a little deeper into the dangers of these chemicals. While some of these chemicals are mild or benign, others have been linked to cancer, infertility, developmental damage, hormone disruption, and neurological issues.

For example, a hormone-disrupting fungicide carbendazim, detected on 16% of samples, damages the male reproductive system. The EU has even gone as far as to ban the use of this chemical. Hello, U.S.? Anyone there? 

A pyrethroid insecticide Bifenthrin, found on more than 29% of samples, has been categorized as a possible human carcinogen by the EPA and California regulators. So why is it still ok to use? The U.S. has ridiculously loose laws regulating pesticide use in our food supply. Only 5.6% of strawberries from the 2015 and 2016 studies contained illegal pesticides. This is insane considering the nearly 300 pounds of pesticides used per acre of strawberries. Compare that number to the 5 pounds of pesticides per acre of corn, and you might be scratching your head thinking, “well, isn’t corn considered a pesticide-intensive crop…and isn’t it in the top 3 most genetically modified crops?”. Yeah, I’m confused too. 

The problem here is that the EPA has not updated its laws as new research surfaces about the toxicity of pesticides. But here’s the thing, in 2015 only around 20% of chemicals used on California strawberries (where the majority of strawberries are grown) were pesticides that can leave residues after harvest. That means that the other 80% (9.3+ million pounds) we’re fumigants – the poisonous gases injected directly into the soil to sterilize before planting. 

If fumigants are toxic gases that kill every living thing found in soil, then imagine what they do to the inside of your body. Even wilder, some of these gases were originally developed as chemical warfare agents which are now banned by the Geneva Conventions!

The most widely used strawberry fumigant was methyl bromide, known to destroy the Earth’s ozone layer. In 1987, an international treaty banned its use, but the U.S. continued to use it for 30 years after this due to “critical use exemptions” from the EPA. It wasn’t until 2017 when strawberry growers were officially banned from using methyl bromide. But just like other silly chemical bans, big Ag shifts to use of a similar chemical that is just as or maybe more dangerous than the original one. Replacement fumigants like chloropicrin (active ingredient in tear gas) and 1,3-dichloropropene (carcinogen sold by Dow Chemical Company) are just as hazardous and are banned by the EU. Hello, U.S. can you hear us?! 

Fumigants not only damage those who eat the crop, but also those who work in the fields all day and those living in surrounding areas. The bottom line here is that the EPA is too lenient on public health protection – and something has got to change. 

If you want to avoid pesticides that include toxins linked to reproductive damage, cancer, and more, then buy organic! And I’m not just talking strawberries here – according to the Environmental Working Group there are 11 other unlikely suspects that you need to buy organic: 

  1. Strawberries 
  2. Spinach
  3. Kale
  4. Nectarines
  5. Apples
  6. Grapes
  7. Peaches
  8. Cherries
  9. Pears
  10. Tomatoes
  11. Celery 
  12. Potatoes 

Don’t let go of all hope, here is the 2020 Clean 15: 

  1. Avocados 
  2. Sweet Corn 
  3. Pineapple
  4. Onions
  5. Papaya 
  6. Sweet Peas (Frozen) 
  7. Eggplant
  8. Asparagus
  9. Cauliflower
  10. Cantaloupe
  11. Broccoli
  12. Mushrooms 
  13. Cabbage
  14. Honeydew 
  15. Kiwi 


  1. Environmental Working Group. “Pesticides + Poison Gases = Cheap, Year-Round Strawberries.” EWG’s 2020 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce | Strawberries,
  2. Environmental Working Group. “Dirty Dozen™ Fruits and Vegetables with the Most Pesticides.” EWG’s 2020 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce | Dirty Dozen,


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