On Pesticides and Children

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

Cropdusting in California / USDA Photo: Charles O'Rea

Agricultural pesticides, long suspected of being especially harmful to children, are receiving additional scrutiny, thanks to three recent studies. And – no surprise here – children who live in agricultural areas turn out to be particularly vulnerable.

Scientists are cautious in their conclusions, awaiting results of further testing. But two classes of pesticides, known as organophosphates and pyrethroids, are being increasingly implicated in relation to glandular and neurological disruptions among children. It’s hard to sort out which kind of bug killer is associated with which kind of problem, because when conventionally grown produce is examined, both are found on the same fruits and vegetables.

Organophosphates are directly related to the nerve gas Sarin and have recently been linked to an increase in attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Pyrethroids are primarily associated with mimicking the action of the body’s endocrine glands – those that secrete hormones directly into the bloodstream, such as the thyroid and reproductive glands.

Estrogen is one of the hormones endocrine disrupters can imitate. Scientists trying to figure out why American girls are reaching puberty at seven or eight, four to six years earlier than in previous generations, might want to look at the current batch of pesticide research.

The first of the three appeared in July. It measured the types and amounts of organophosphates and pyrethroids in 239 food samples collected from 46 children participating in the Children’s Pesticide Exposure Study (CPES). Researchers found that 14% contained at least one organophosphate and 5% contained at least one phrethroid insecticide. A total of 11 organophosphates and three pyrethroids were found in the children’s food. The study did not look at possible ill effects from the pesticides, but it noted that

many of the food items consumed by the CPES children were also on the list of the most-contaminated food commodities reported by the Environmental Working Group.

In the largest study of its kind, published in August, scientists tested the urine of more than 1,000 children for byproducts of organophosphates. They found that those who tested positive had twice the chance of being diagnosed with ADHD. A CBS News report noted that organophosphates kill pests by interfering with communication in their nervous systems.

Another August-released study reported that children whose mothers had signs in their urine of prental exposure to organophosphates had higher rates of poor physical and mental development at age two. This study, conducted in the California’s Salinas Valley, one of the world’s most fertile agricultural areas, underscored the fact exposure to pesticide-contaminated produce need not depend on eating it.

[...]“take-home” pesticide exposure — on clothing and skin — was extremely high for the workers and their families whose homes, schools, and playgrounds were located very close to cultivated fields.

The good news to this story comes from a 2006 study in which children were fed an organic diet and their urine examined for evidence of pesticide exposure.

Researchers found that pesticide levels in children’s bodies dropped to zero after just a few days of eating organic produce and grains. “After they switch back to a conventional diet, the levels go up,

the study’s chief author said.

Experts emphasize that the solution to pesticide exposure from fruits and vegetables is not to stop giving them to children. That would be a step away from good nutrition, they say. Rather, buying organic produce or even produce grown close to home is the better option. This is one more argument in favor of patronizing farmers’ markets whenever, and as long as, they are open.

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