What are pesticides and where does exposure occur?
Pesticides and herbicides control unwanted insects and weeds, but they also affect beneficial insects like bees and can create resistant “superweeds”. Many of these chemicals designed for home, garden or industrial farming use also affect humans and they can show up in the water supply6. Are they safe even at small levels and is eating organic really worth the extra cost?
Compared to 20 years ago, there are significantly more pesticides (including herbicides) on the market. It is difficult to pinpoint exact numbers today, but the EPA reports that in 2007, Pesticide use exceeded 1.1 billion pounds in the US alone1. Exposure can occur at homes that use chemical pest control services, sprays or traps, and in schools, and through food and water. Farm workers and children living near sprayed farms have much higher levels in the blood and have higher rates of asthma, coeliac disease, Parkinson’s disease, anxiety, AD/ADHD, lymphocytic leukemia and brain tumors (2,3,4). One of the most concerning classification of pesticides are the neonicotinoids which are associated with bee and pollinator decline which contribute to rising costs of food and have been linked to impaired brain development, disorientation, agitation and weakness in mammals (2,4,5).
Do they affect children more than adults?
Organophosphate exposures can affect the neurodevelopment, sensory-motor, language, memory/ learning, and visuospacial processing of children and may affect boys more than girls 7. Some advocates say there is no safe level particularly with children who are physically smaller and have much higher dose per kg of body weight thus exceeding reported safety levels. It has been reported that “subacute or chronic low-level exposure is common and concerning”2. This refers to flea bombs, foggers, sprays, lawn control, mosquito sprays, and residues of glyphosate (Roundup) tracked in on shoes. Health concerns range from nausea and skin irritation to seizures and cancer2. The bigger concern is that there are so many different exposures to multiple chemicals and we don’t fully understand the cumulative effect on developing brains and bodies. Pesticide poisonings were a leading cause of calls to poison control centers and 45% of those calls were for children2. This same report linked home use of insecticides to increased rates of leukemia and brain tumors.
Can’t I just wash them off?
Not always. Washing can certainly help in many cases, however neonicotinoid residue has been shown to persist on fruits and vegetables. Some are systemic meaning that they are part of the cell or DNA structure of the plant and cannot be washed off. Seeds may have been pre-treated before planting, or they might be genetically modified seeds crafted to withstand repeated sprayings of glyphosate (Roundup). Glyphosate is a very concerning chemical and is also used to ripen green sugarcane so it can come to market faster. So heavily processed foods and sugary foods might contain residues of glyphosate; just one more reason to eat more fresh, whole and unprocessed foods from trusted and organic sources. Glyphosate has been linked to kidney failure and the increasing rates of food allergies and coeliac disease most likely due to the way it negatively affects the naturally occurring microbial flora of the intestinal tract. It affects the tight cell junctions between intestinal cells causing “leaky gut” syndrome which lets molecules (like gluten proteins for example) leak through causing an immune response3.
What does “organic” really mean?
The term “organic” is regulated and is legally defined, whereas the term “natural” is not protected. Organic means no synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, not irradiated, not genetically modified (GMO), and no sewage sludge. Organic animal products like meats and eggs can’t be given growth hormones, antibiotics or other drugs and should have been fed organic feed and not GMO soy, corn, or animal by-products. The terms “Organic” or “Natural” have nothing to do with the conditions that the animal was raised in or slaughtered.
Is buying organic really worth it?
Yes. It’s more expensive, but it is worth it. Not only does it minimize exposure to pesticides and herbicides but organic fruits and veggies have been shown to have higher levels of vitamins, minerals and cancer fighting phytonutrients (UC Davis). Many families are on tight food budgets and can’t always buy organic. That’s ok and it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t eat fruits and vegetables. Pick from the Environmental Working Group’s “Clean 15 list”, wash them well at home, shop at local farmer’s markets. Many local farmers can’t afford to be designated “organic” but they follow safe and smart farming methods that minimize harmful chemicals, shop local and talk to your farmer. Don’t stop eating lots of fruits and veggies out of fear of pesticides and herbicides. Try to minimize risk by making smart choices.
Meat, eggs, and dairy should always be purchased organic (if consumed at all). Antibiotics given to animals in their feed pre-slaughter are associated with the rising rates of obesity in the US and can be considered obesigenic8. Additionally many cheap sources of meat (like in most fast food) are fed GMO feed and contain fillers. Organic meat can be very expensive so consumers would be wise to choose organic plant based proteins which can be dramatically less expensive. If you do consume meat, you can somewhat reduce chemical exposure by trimming the fat pre-cooking.
The Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen (www.ewg.org)
By Emily C. Harrison MS, RD, LD of Nutrition for Great Performances.
Emily Cook Harrison MS, RD, LD
Emily is a registered dietitian and holds both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in nutrition from Georgia State University, USA. Her master’s thesis research was on elite level ballet dancers and nutrition and she has experience providing nutrition services for weight management, sports nutrition, disordered eating, disease prevention, and food allergies. Emily was a professional dancer for eleven years with the Atlanta Ballet and several other companies. She is a dance educator and the mother of two young children. She now runs the Centre for Dance Nutrition and Healthy Lifestyles. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
1. US EPA Pesticide Industry Sales and Usage 2007. http://www.epa.gov/opp00001/pestsales/07pestsales/market_estimates2007.pdf
2. Roberts JR, Karr CJ, Council on Environmental Health. Pesticide Exposure in Children, Technical Report. American Academy of Pediatrics. Vol 130, no.6, 2012.
3. Samsel A, Seneff S. Glyphosate, pathways to modern disease II: Celiac sprue and gluten intolerance. Interdicip Toxicol, 2013.
4. The Environmental Working Group. www.ewg.org
5. Pesticides and Kids. Mother Earth News 2014.
6. Drinking Water and Pesticides: http://www2.epa.gov/safepestcontrol/drinking-water-and-pesticides
7. Suarez-Lopez JR, Himes JH, Jacobs DR, Alexander BH, Gunnar MR. Acetylcholinesterase activity and neurodevelopment in boys and girls. Pediatrics, Dec;132(6):1649-58. 2013
8. Riley LW, Raphael E, Faerstein E. Obesity in the United States-Dysbiosis from Low-dose exposure to antibiotics. Frontiers in Public Health. 2013. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3867737/