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Oranges are not the safest fruit - they all exceed pesticide limits

Orange peel gives zest to Christmas - spicing up festive fare from mince pies to mulled wine, brandy butter to the pudding itself. But official monitoring, published last week, shows that our seasonal sustenance also contains a hidden peril.

Checks by the Government Pesticides Residues Committee have found that every single orange examined was contaminated by pesticides.

Many of the chemicals found are suspected of causing cancer and "gender-bender effects", about half are banned for use in Britain, and more than a third were found at levels above European or British danger limits.

Two of the pesticides - Carbofuran and Methidathion, banned in Britain - are classified by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as "highly hazardous".

Carbofuran - which was found at above the EC danger level for infants - is thought to damage the nervous and reproductive systems and may also cause headache, sweating, nausea, diarrhoea, chest pains, blurred vision, anxiety and general muscular weakness.

Methidathion - found to be exceeding the European level for all children under 14 - is suspected of causing cancer, and can also bring on nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and stomach pains.

A third banned pesticide, Fenthion, which is classed as "moderately hazardous" by the WHO was found to break EU safety limits for those under 14.

Two suspected gender-benders, Diazinon and Dimethoate, were both found in oranges imported from Egypt at above British legal limits. Dimethoate is also classed as a possible carcinogen.

In all, six suspected carcinogens and six possible gender-benders were found in the oranges. The pesticide thought to be the likeliest to cause cancer, Imazalil, was found in every orange tested but one, and one orange was contaminated by no fewer than seven different pesticides.

The committee - criticised for being too tolerant of pesticide contamination - admits that "the margins of safety have been eroded" on the poisons found at above EU levels, but adds that "there are no expected concerns for consumer safety".

It also says that "no adverse health effects were anticipated" from the pesticides found at levels above British legal limits.

But the Pesticides Action Committee argues the committee reached these conclusions by assuming people do not eat much of the peel, where most of the poisons as concentrated. "Think how much of the peel we use in cooking, particularly at Christmas," it says. "This is one surprise in the Christmas pudding that we can all do without."