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Is Perception Reality in Pesticide Risks?

Are you afraid of pesticide residues in your food? If you are, you're not alone. But you're not necessarily right.

In 1991, the Food and Drug Administration tested 19,000 samples of grains, fruits, dairy and egg foods, vegetables, fish and other meats for pesticide residues.

A whopping 99 percent had no unacceptable residues. The FDA could find no residues at all in 64 percent and found only legal, acceptable levels in 35 percent.

People fear pesticides on fruits and vegetables more than on other foods because they often eat them raw.

So the U.S. Department of Agriculture tested 12 common fruits and vegetables. Only 1.5 percent of the samples had residues above federal guidelines.

So where's the danger?

Under your kitchen sink, said Paul Guillebeau, an entomologist with the University of Georgia Extension Service.

"Studies show people with young children are most concerned about pesticides," Guillebeau said. "Young children are at risk, but the danger is not necessarily on the foods they eat."

Guillebeau cited the Environmental Protection Agency's National Home and Garden Pesticide Use Survey.

"Half of all households with children under 5 have pesticides in unlocked cabinets within children's reach," he said.

That's true in three-fourths of households without children. And many children are poisoned outside their own homes.

No matter what tests and safety figures show, people have strong, and often conflicting opinions about pesticide risks, he said.

He cites a recent study from the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology entitled, "Public Perceptions of Agrichemicals." The study was based on a national survey by the Food Marketing Institute.

One myth is that everyone is fearful of pesticides in his foods. The CAST study showed about a fourth of the public sees a great chance of harm from pesticides. But another fourth sees very little or no chance.

In the survey, 4.4 percent said they're certain someone in their household will have health problems someday because of pesticides on his food. Another 4.1 percent said, "No chance." And nearly 20 percent said it's a one-in- a-million chance.

The survey asked people, "What, if anything, do you feel are the greatest threats to the safety of the food you eat?"

About 41 percent said "spoilage or germs," while 14 percent said "pesticides, residues, insecticides or herbicides."

People also fear improper packaging or canning, chemicals, tampering, unsanitary handling, preservatives, additives, environmental pollutants, antibiotics and radiation.

"The facts are different from what some people may perceive to be the risks," Guillebeau said. "People worry about things they can't control, like pesticide residues.

"But the real danger comes from exposing themselves and their children to chemicals in the home," he said. "And that's a danger they can do something about."

Put a lock on the cabinet. Or place the products out of reach of children and pets, Guillebeau said. Use pesticides properly. Read the label for safety precautions and emergency guidelines.

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