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The pesticides on our plates

Aug 21. 2012
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A consumer network discovers dangerously high levels of chemicals in the vegetables we eat

In a move that will do little to promote Thailand’s continuing “Kitchen of the World” campaign, Consumer’s Handbook magazine and the Thailand Pesticide Alert Network, or Thai-PAN as it’s known for short, recently announced that many vegetables we buy suffer from a surfeit of pesticides.

Confidence in food safety took another blow as they added that the Safe logo or Q logo (Quality standard) made little difference: our health is still at risk from the chemicals in these vegetables.

Tests were conducted on cabbages, Chinese broccoli, Chinese cabbage, water morning glory, parsley, yardlong beans and bird chilli peppers (also known as bird’s eye chilli), collected at random from supermarkets, Pracha Nivet amd Huay Kwang markets and mobile markets (the pick-ups that travel round neighbourhoods) and including varieties bearing the Q logo.

Despite wide variations in prices with the veg in some supermarkets sometimes selling for as much as 10 times more than in a fresh market, the trace amounts of pesticides were almost as the same.

An earlier previous investigation found that 43 per cent of all vegetables in supermarkets failed the European Union Food Standard. The same investigation has now been conducted on the vegetables sold in fresh markets and off carts and the failure rate – 43 per cent- is the same. Does this mean that the vegetables are all coming from the same source?

Thai-PAN says the produce at Huay Kwang may well have a unique as the market reveals the highest concentrations of pesticides in all kinds of vegetables, with an alarming 202 times the amount of chemicals allowed by the European guideline.

However, the network notes the risk of contamination varies according to the vegetable with parsley topping the danger list.

Tests on the herb revealed 5 types of pesticides including Carbofuran, Chlopyrifos, EPN and Methidathion at levels up to 102 times higher than the European guideline. Yardlong beans and bird's eye chilli came second and third respectively. Thai-PAN warns that these chemicals are all harmful to the health, with long term effects as well as acute poisoning if the concentration is high enough. Just 3 drops of EPN or a teaspoon of carbofuran can be fatal.

“This situation is severe,” says a Thai-PAN spokesman. “Thailand has very few standards to limit the use of pesticides. One of the guidelines for Huay Kwang market simply states that ‘the chemicals should not contaminate the product’ but provides no numbers. Without any prescribed doses to adhere to, it’s easy to see why pesticides are so liberally applied. European standards are much more detailed.

Take parsley, for example. European guidelines suggest that there should not be more than 0.05mg of Chloropyrifos, 0.02mg of Methidathion and 0.3mg of Methomyl. No limitation is given in the Thai standard.”

This issue was addressed in a meeting between Thai-PAN and the Department of Agriculture earlier this month, with Thai-PAN proposing that pesticides should be officially registered and guidelines written to regulate their use. Representatives from the Department of Agriculture turned down the proposal, claiming that the large majority (99.97 per cent) of vegetables are not contaminated by such pesticides as carbofuran. Following the meeting, the ministry’s Rice Department; which controls half of the agricultural area in Thailand, expressed its displeasure, saying it was not given the opportunity to become involved in the decision over pesticide use.

Thai-PAN representatives for their part accept it will be a longer struggle that they had expected but say they won’t give up. In the meantime, they offer some tips to help consumers protect themselves for too many pesticides.

- Always rinse vegetables repeatedly with water or in a potassium permanganate solution.

- Buy vegetables from organic farms that forbid the use of chemicals. Not only will you enjoy fresher tasting veg but you will also be supporting their organisations.

- Start growing your own veg. It’s easy and you can do it in a small plot and even on a balcony.

- Wherever possible, avoid the seven vegetables on the list. These are the most likely to be contaminated with pesticides as farmers race to keep up with high demand.

- Don’t buy the same type of vegetable every time. This will prevent an accumulation of chemicals in your body.

- Do be aware when you are buying:

- The label Q stands for quality. It is given to vegetables grown without the use of pesticides but chemical fertilisers may be used.

- Pak plod pai (Hygienic) means that pesticides and chemical fertilisers may be used.

- Pak plod sarn pid (organic) means that neither pesticides nor chemical fertilisers may be used.

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