Pesticides Linked to ADHD in Children

While the debate over whether to eat organic wages on, a study released yesterday provides some of the first hard evidence that pesticides affect the health of everyday consumers of conventionally grown produce.

A study published in the journal Pediatrics found that children who had significantly higher levels of a breakdown product of a certain kind of pesticide in their urine were twice as likely to be diagnosed with attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder. Some 119 children from the 1,140-child sample were diagnosed with the disorder.

This is significant because previous research into the links between pesticide use and human health had focused on those who were constantly exposed to these pesticides, such as farmers or others who work in the fields.

The particular class of pesticide tested, neurotoxic organophosphates, can be found in many food, including frozen blueberries, strawberries and celery. Kind of scary, isn’t it?

Many supporters of conventionally grown food emphasize that it’s the dose of these chemicals that matters, not their presence. That is, if a pesticide causes cancer at an exposure level of 1 mg consumed per week, the fact that that .000001 mg of the chemical makes it onto a piece of fruit doesn’t mean that someone who eats that fruit will get cancer.

But this study significantly undercuts that assertion, as the children who were diagnosed with ADHD were consuming these supposedly harmless amounts of pesticides with their carrots and peas. Kind of scary, isn’t it?

Eating a diet with only organic fruits and vegetables is a surefire way to avoid consuming these pesticides, though that’s not always possible. Many people (including me) can’t afford to buy only organic produce. But you can shop strategically, choosing organic for produce that typically gets treated with a great deal of pesticide. You can use the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” as a guide, though it has come under some criticism for its methodology. You can also try farmers’ markets, which often have lower prices because they cut out the middleman of the grocery store. Local Harvest has a great database that lets you search by location for farmers’ markets, local farms and food co-ops that could get you a better deal on organic produce.

We’re just starting to learn about whether pesticides actually present a danger to those who consume conventionally grown foods. Like most problems, it’s one with nuance that most interest groups fail to capture. So while this study doesn’t mean that all conventional produce will cause health problems for you and your family, it does mean we need to keep researching the effects of these chemicals and consider buying organic produce when possible.

Posted by Laura Williams on Sep 13, 2011