Yannick Chenet, a French winegrower, died after contracting leukemia, becoming the first farmer to have his illness officially linked to the pesticides he used for years on his crops. He is among 40 or so farmers in France whose illnesses have now been officially linked to their profession and the pesticides they have sprayed on the land. More than a quarter of the roughly 220,000 tons of pesticides used in Europe per year is sprayed onto French soil.
Yannick started working at 14 or 15 years of age and, like many children around the world, has been heavily exposed to pesticides and many other noxious chemicals. In April 2004, he inadvertently breathed in noxious fumes from his agricultural spraying machine without a mask on. Immediately admitted to hospital, he fell into a coma. Since then his illness continues to affect his kidneys and nervous system and he has again fallen into comas on several occasions.
Research by the European Union claims pesticides used on
fruits, vegetables and cereals harms fetuses and young
children. Since pesticides attack the brains of insects, experts
insist they’re also “very likely” to damage human brains.
Dramatic deficits in brain function are seen in rural children with long-term exposure to pesticides compared with children not similarly exposed. Contamination has been documented in many studies from populations around the world, with women’s breast milk containing concentrations of lindane, heptachlor, benzene hexachloride, aldrin and endrin all above limits established by the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization.
According to pediatrician Philip Landrigan of Mount Sinai Medical Center, we should have “very important concerns about the toxic effects of pesticides on children’s nervous systems.” Bernard Weiss of the Department of Environmental Medicine at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry stated, “It doesn’t seem a surprise that you would see an effect, knowing what we know about pesticides and the elevated vulnerability of the developing brain.”
Pesticides act on a set of brain chemicals closely related to those involved in ADHD – Dr. Maryse Bouchard
Children face higher risks from pesticides than adults and need greater protection against these chemicals, particularly in developing countries, according to a joint report published by FAO, the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Health Organization (WHO). Children who were exposed to organophosphate pesticides while still in their mother’s womb were more likely to develop attention disorders years later, according to researchers at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Public Health.
Findings published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP) examine the influence of prenatal organophosphate exposure on the later development of attention problems. The researchers found that prenatal levels of organophosphate metabolites were significantly linked to attention problems at age five, with the effects apparently stronger among boys. The organophosphate family of chemicals damages the nervous system (which includes the brain), so scientists are particularly concerned about children’s exposure because their bodies are still developing. Chlorpyrifos is one of the many insecticides in this chemical family.
Different researchers at Harvard University have also associated greater exposure to organophosphate pesticides in school-aged children with higher rates of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms.
“These studies provide a growing body of evidence that organophosphate pesticide exposure can impact human neurodevelopment, particularly among children,” said the study’s principal investigator, Brenda Eskenazi, UC Berkeley professor of epidemiology and of maternal and child health. “We were especially interested in prenatal exposure because that is the period when a baby’s nervous system is developing the most.”
Reduce and Eliminate Exposure with Organic Food
President Obama’s Cancer Panel recommends consumers choose food grown without chemical fertilizers or pesticides, antibiotics and growth hormones to decrease exposure to environmental chemicals that can increase the risk of cancer.
The journal Pediatrics published a study that concludes that children exposed to organophosphate pesticides at levels common among America’s children are more likely to develop attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a disorder becoming more and more common in today’s children. Researchers at Emory University  have found that switching children to an organic diet provides a “dramatic and immediate protective effect” against exposures to two organophosphate pesticides that are commonly used in U.S. agricultural production—malathion and chlorpyrifos. The results were published in the September 2005 issue of the scientific journal Environmental Health Perspectives.
“Immediately after substituting organic food items for the children’s normal diets, the concentration of the organophosphorus pesticides found in their bodies decreased substantially to non-detectable levels until the conventional diets were re-introduced,” says Dr. Lu, an assistant professor in the department of environmental and occupational health, Rollins School of Public Health, Emory University.
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Twenty-three elementary-school-age children participated in a 15-day study that was divided into three parts. First the children ate their usual diet of conventionally-grown food for three days. Then they were switched to organically-grown substitutes for five days. For the final seven days, they were switched back to conventional food. The organic substitutes were mainly fruits, vegetables, juices and grain products (such as wheat) because these foods are often contaminated with organophosphates. Urine samples were collected twice a day for each child. Researchers tested the urine for signs of pesticides.
In the case of two organophosphate insecticides—malathion and chlorpyrifos—the results were startling. Signs of these two chemicals were found in the urine in the first part of the study. Almost immediately after the children switched to an organic diet, these chemicals could not be detected. The chemicals showed up again when the children switched back to their normal diet.
The researchers said, “We were able to demonstrate that an organic diet provides a dramatic and immediate protective effect against exposures to organophosphorus pesticides that are commonly used in agriculture.”
Danger Warning… Danger Warning
A tractor sprays pesticides on a food crop. A new UC Berkeley study finds a link between prenatal exposure to pesticides and attention problems at age 5.
Pesticides are widely used for many purposes, including home, garden, commercial, and agricultural pest control. Thus, the potential for some degree of exposure to these chemicals is great. In general, pesticides can enter the body through the lungs, the mouth, and the skin. Of course, each class of pesticide will differ somewhat in the specific way it is absorbed. Recent studies have shown that young children may be at particularly increased risk of pesticide exposure for several reasons:
- Their tendency to explore their environment with their mouths
- Their closeness to the ground
- Their increased time playing outdoors.
Kids may be exposed to pesticides in the following ways:
- The diet is clearly an important potential route of pesticides exposure in children and adults.
- The small amounts of pesticides present on our food are called pesticide residues. Both adults and children consume these residues regularly to some degree.
- Children’s diets are relatively higher in fruits and vegetables than adults. Thus, they may be at increased risk of exposure from their diet.
- According to the National Research Council, differences in diet between children and adults are responsible for most of the differences in the possible health effects of pesticides.
- Children and infants tend to eat fewer types of foods and eat more processed foods than adults (infant formula, baby food, etc.). There is very little current evidence about the amount of pesticide residues in processed foods. However, the limited available evidence shows that processed foods in general may actually have fewer residues than unprocessed foods.
In the Home:
It is estimated that over 90% of U.S. homes use some form of pesticide.
- In fact, most toxic pesticide exposure in humans occurs from misuse or accidents in the setting of the home or garden.
- Infants may be exposed to pesticides in household dust by skin contact, breathing, and eating of the dust.
- One study has found that pesticide residues may remain on toys, pillows, and other surfaces for up to two weeks after the house has been sprayed for bugs.
In Drinking Water:
- Since children consume more water than any other substance, the water supply is clearly an important possible route of exposure to environmental chemicals.
- Several scientific studies have examined the relative amounts of various pesticides in the drinking water supply in different parts of the country. Except in a few areas where dramatic pesticide contamination has occurred, most studies have concluded that the levels of pesticide in the drinking water supply in the U.S. is extremely low.
Outside the Home:
- This category would include school, playground, daycare, and commercial settings.
- These settings are probably not as important as the home in terms of pesticide exposure to children. However, exposure is possible in these settings especially if there has been recent pesticide application.
In Agricultural Settings:
- Agricultural settings may be a risk factor for pesticide exposure in children, especially when one or both parents are agricultural workers.
- Children may be exposed while playing in fields sprayed with agricultural pesticides.
- Also, pesticide residues may be tracked into the home by parents who are agricultural workers.
- One study looked at specific activities that might increase the chances of exposure to children of agricultural workers. These include, a delay in changing clothing after spraying pesticides, mixing pesticide-contaminated clothing with the family wash, applying pesticides within 50 yards of the well.
- It is important to remember that some of the pesticides used in agriculture may still remain on the fruits and vegetables in the supermarket.
 Lu, C et al. 2006. Organic diets significantly lower children’s dietary exposure
to organophosphorus pesticides. Environmental Health Perspectives. February 2006.