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Bad News About Pesticides

Dangers of Pesticides

Story at-a-glance -

  • A new study revealed that mothers’ exposure to organophosphate pesticides during pregnancy was associated with lower IQ, increased risk of attention problems, poorer cognitive functioning and other problems in their children
  • Prenatal exposure to chlorpyrifos pesticide was also associated with lower IQs and poorer working memory in three-year-olds
  • Exposure while in the womb to DDT, a pesticide banned in 1972 after close to 30 years of use, increases women’s risk of high blood pressure decades later
  • The pesticide industry pours millions of dollars into lobbying efforts to defeat increased regulations at both the state and federal levels; they’ve also engaged in tactics to discredit scientists revealing pesticide dangers
  • Eating organic foods as much as possible is one of the best ways to reduce your pesticide exposure, along with not using them in your home (including on pets or for head lice treatment)

By Dr. Mercola

More than one billion pounds of pesticides are used in the US each year, an amount that has quintupled since 1945. This includes 20,000 products made from varying formulations of more than 1,000 chemicals, sprayed everywhere from farm fields and gardens to playgrounds and schools.1

It should be revealing that one commonly used type of pesticide, organophosphates, were first developed as nerve gas during World War II. They work by inhibiting cholinesterase, an enzyme that regulates a key messenger in your brain called acetylcholine.

In effect, these poisons disrupt the signals between neurons, an action that has been linked to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's in humans. In children, there is increasing evidence that these pesticides are especially damaging, not only at high exposure levels but also at low, chronic levels to which millions are exposed.

Please understand that this article documents the damage from pesticides that have been present for many decades. It does not go into what many scientists, like Dr. Huber, feel is even a greater threat, which is the glyphosate that is being used at nearly one billion pounds per year -- but has not been around long enough to generate this type of data.

The CHAMACOS Study: Even Tiny Amounts of Pesticides May Harm Kids' Brains

The recently published CHAMACOS Study followed hundreds of pregnant women living in Salinas Valley, California, an agricultural mecca that has had up to a half-million pounds of organophosphates sprayed in the region per year.

The children were followed through age 12 to assess what impact the pesticides had on their development.2 It turns out the impact was quite dramatic, and mothers' exposure to organophosphates during pregnancy was associated with:3

  • Shorter duration of pregnancy
  • Poorer neonatal reflexes
  • Lower IQ and poorer cognitive functioning in children
  • Increased risk of attention problems in children

Writing in The Nation magazine, reporter Susan Freinkel explained:4

"Prenatal exposure to even tiny amounts of organophosphates—in the parts per trillion range—can have significant impacts on the brain, the CHAMACOS study suggests. …From infancy on, the children of the mothers with the highest levels of organophosphates were at the greatest risk for neurodevelopmental problems.

That association was present at every stage the researchers checked in on the kids. At 6 months, they were more likely to have poorer reflexes. At 2, they were at higher risk for pervasive developmental disorder, an autism-related condition, like Asperger's, in which children have trouble connecting to others.

At 5, they were more likely to be hyperactive and have trouble paying attention. At 7, they scored lower on IQ tests, by an average of seven points—the equivalent of being a half-year behind their peers."

Research published, ironically, the same day as the CHAMACOS study also found that prenatal exposure to chlorpyrifos (Dursban, a pesticide once used to control cockroaches in inner cities) was associated with lower IQs and poorer working memory in three-year-olds.5

A senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, who is now an official at the California Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said the combination of studies come "about as close as I can imagine to absolute proof" of the damaging effects of pesticides on children's brains.6

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Shifts to 'Softer' Pesticides Are Likely No Safer

As the dangers of organophosphates become clear, farmers have shifted toward other supposedly safer chemicals, like neonicotinoids and pyrethroids. The former group of chemicals is a leading suspect behind the massive bee die-offs occurring across the US, and the latter have shown equally concerning health effects as organophosphates.

One study tested urine samples from 779 Canadian children, aged six to 11, and the parents answered questions relating to their child's behavior. Shockingly, even at that young age, 97 percent of the children had pyrethroid breakdown products in their urine. Ninety-one percent also had traces of organophosphate pesticides.7

A 10-fold increase in urinary levels of one pyrethroid breakdown product as associated with twice the risk of a child scoring high for behavioral problems, such as inattention and hyperactivity.

A previous study found that toddlers who had been exposed to pyrethroids while in utero had lower development scores compared to unexposed children. According to a 2006 EPA review, animal research has also shown that even low levels of some of these compounds have an adverse effect on:8

Immune function Nervous system development Behavioral development
Thyroid Liver Reproductive hormones


Some pyrethroids act as endocrine disruptors by mimicking estrogen. Such hormone-disrupting chemicals can either raise the levels or increase estrogenic activity in your body, thereby promoting the growth of estrogen-sensitive cancers such as breast cancer.

As stated by Dana Boyd Barr, a research professor of environmental health at Emory University's Rollins School of Public Health in Atlanta:9 "Pyrethroids are obviously a safer alternative to organophosphates, but just because they are safer doesn't mean they are safe."

In Utero Pesticide Exposure May Lead to Health Problems as an Adult

It's not only behavioral and cognitive troubles that have been linked to in utero pesticide exposure. Recent research has revealed that exposure while in the womb to DDT, a pesticide banned in 1972 after close to 30 years of use, increases women's risk of high blood pressure decades later. Like many environmental toxins, DDT passes freely through the placenta during pregnancy, where it gains direct access to the developing fetus. Past studies have linked DDT to high blood pressure, decreased fertility, premature delivery, and diabetes in adults, but this is the first study to reveal its health risks when exposure occurs prenatally.

The research revealed that women exposed to the most DDT before birth were 2.5 to 3.6 times more likely to develop high blood pressure before the age of 50 than those with the lowest prenatal exposure.10 Although DDT has been banned in the US for decades, it still persists in the environment, including in the food chain. And that is just one chemical that babies are exposed to before birth. It is this cumulative effect of numerous chemicals, particularly to developing children, that likely poses the greatest risks of all. Brenda Eskenazi, chief investigator of the CHAMACOS study, noted:11

"The other thing we don't know about is the combined effect of exposures …Throughout the course of a day, people may eat several different types of produce, each of which may bear traces of one or more pesticides. They encounter other types of chemicals as well—from antibacterials in soaps, to plasticizers in foodware, to flame retardants in the furniture… By day's end, you've got a combination of chemicals and an unknown level of risk."

What is known, however, is that children experience greater exposure to chemicals pound-for-pound than adults, and though the blood-brain barrier is fully formed at birth,12 its function may be immature, which may allow greater chemical exposures to reach their developing brains.

Children also have lower levels of some chemical-binding proteins, which may allow more of a chemical to reach their organs, while systems that detoxify and excrete chemicals in adults are not fully developed. These factors, coupled with the fact that a child may live 80 years or more into adulthood, allowing more than enough time for chemicals to do their damage, signal a major challenge for kids born today. Many experts believe rising rates of birth defects, asthma, neurodevelopmental disorders and other serious diseases in US children are a result of these early chemical exposures, including pesticides.

Pesticide Industry Pours Millions Into Lobbying to Defeat Tighter Regulations

While chlorpyrifos has been banned for household use for more than a decade, it's still widely used in agriculture – despite efforts by farmworkers and scientists who tried to get the chemical added as a toxicant under Proposition 65 (this California law prohibits industry from using substances known to cause birth defects and reproductive harm into the environment). At a Sacramento, CA meeting to address the chemical in 2007, reporter Lee Fang wrote:13

"Remembering that meeting in Sacramento, Margaret Reeves, a senior scientist with the Pesticide Action Network (PAN), recalls that people critical of chlorpyrifos 'each got one to two minutes to speak.' Then came the scientists working for Dow Chemical, the principal manufacturer of the chemical in the United States. 'There were five Dow scientists, and they each got five to ten minutes. It was mind-boggling, the preference for their input over the victims and the consumer rights advocates and the farmworker advocates,' says Dr. Reeves."

In the last decade, PAN has spent just over $20,000 lobbying in Sacramento, compared to Dow's more than $1.2 million (Dow, which manufactures Dursban and the chlorpyrifos Lorsban, generated nearly $5 billion in profits in 201314). As you might suspect, chlorpyrifos was not declared a toxic substance under Proposition 65. At the national level, too, such industry power is apparent. The chemical companies are already hard at work to defeat pesticide measures introduced by the EPA earlier this year, one that would evaluate the health risks of pesticide drift from farms onto nearby areas and another that would update pesticide safety laws for farmworkers. Fang continued:15

"…pesticide manufacturers are poised to beat back the EPA's efforts. CropLife America—a trade group for companies including Dow, Bayer and DuPont that spends more than $14 million a year on research and advocacy—is not only in close communication with the EPA; it has worked with congressional allies to block the agency's attempts at regulation. The organization called on Representative Darrell Issa of California, chair of the House Oversight Committee, to investigate the administration for pursuing agricultural regulations, including the so-called 'spray-drift' rules.

According to CropLife officials, these reforms 'unnecessarily cost farmers time, money and liability, and significantly impact U.S. agriculture and the economy.' In response, Issa has held multiple hearings to undermine the EPA—under the guise of protecting 'Job Creators Still Buried by Red Tape,' as one session relating to the EPA regulations on pesticides was titled. …In addition to Issa's committee, a number of GOP legislators have sponsored amendments to appropriation bills that would block EPA action on pesticide rules. The recently passed farm bill included a bipartisan amendment exempting certain forms of pesticide pollution from enforcement under the Clean Water Act."

Pesticide Maker Tries to Discredit Scientist That Linked It to Reproductive Abnormalities

One of the most shocking displays of just how far the chemical industry will go to protect its profits at the expense of public health is the story of Tyrone Hayes, whose Atrazine research turned his life into a veritable nightmare. In the late 1990s, he conducted experiments on the herbicide Atrazine for its maker, Syngenta. As reported by The New Yorker:16

"...when Hayes discovered that Atrazine might impede the sexual development of frogs, his dealings with Syngenta became strained, and, in November, 2000, he ended his relationship with the company. Hayes continued studying Atrazine on his own, and soon he became convinced that Syngenta representatives were following him to conferences around the world. He worried that the company was orchestrating a campaign to destroy his reputation."

Two years ago, his work on Atrazine provided the scientific basis for two class-action lawsuits brought against Syngenta by 23 US municipalities, accusing the chemical technology company of contaminating drinking water and "concealing Atrazine's true dangerous nature." Documents unearthed during these legal proceedings revealed that Hayes' suspicions were true—Syngenta had indeed been studying him as deeply as he'd been studying their toxic herbicide for the past 15 years.

What follows reaches a level of creepy that no one should ever have to endure—least of all a scientist who's working to learn and share the truth about a widely used agricultural chemical that has the power to affect all of us, and our ecology. The New Yorker continued:

"Syngenta's public-relations team had drafted a list of four goals. The first was 'discredit Hayes.' In a spiral-bound notebook, Syngenta's communications manager, Sherry Ford, who referred to Hayes by his initials, wrote that the company could 'prevent citing of TH data by revealing him as noncredible...' Syngenta looked for ways to 'exploit Hayes' faults/problems.' 'If TH involved in scandal, enviros will drop him,' Ford wrote. She observed that Hayes 'grew up in world (S.C.) that wouldn't accept him,' 'needs adulation,' 'doesn't sleep,' was 'scarred for life.' She wrote, 'What's motivating Hayes?—basic question.'"

Simple Steps for Reducing Your Exposure to Pesticides

Everyone can be harmed by pesticides, but if you're a woman of childbearing age or have young children, taking steps to reduce your exposure is especially important. Your best bet for minimizing health risks from pesticide exposure is to avoid them in the first place by eating organically grown food as much as possible and investing in a good water filtration system for your home or apartment.

If you know you have been exposed to pesticides, the lactic acid bacteria formed during the fermentation of kimchi may also help your body break down pesticides. So including fermented foods like kimchi in your diet may also be a wise strategy to help detox the pesticides that do enter your body. Finally, do not use synthetic pesticides in your home or garden, or in the form of insect repellant, lice shampoo, pet sprays, or otherwise. There are safe and effective natural alternatives for virtually every pest problem you come across. For example:

  • Knock out roaches, ants and termites with boric acid powder. Sprinkle some in the inner corners of your cabinets and in the corners under your cabinets. Pests will carry it back to their nests on their feet and kill the remainder of the infestation. Boric acid is generally non-toxic for animals, but you'd still be well advised to place it in areas where your pet will not ingest or inhale it, as it kills bugs by causing dehydration.
  • Treat head lice with an old-fashioned nit comb and essential oils of anise and ylang ylang, combined into a spray. This has been found to be highly effective in eliminating over 90 percent of head lice.
  • Control your pet's fleas and ticks with safe, natural pest repellents, such as:
    • Cedar oil
    • Natural, food-grade diatomaceous earth
    • Fresh garlic -- work with your holistic vet to determine a safe amount for your pet's body weight
    • Feeding your pet a balanced, species-appropriate diet. The healthier your dog or cat is, the less appealing she'll be to parasites. A biologically appropriate diet supports a strong immune system.
    • Bathing and brushing your pet regularly and performing frequent full-body inspections to check for parasite activity.