Pesticides and Children: Why Kids and Expectant Mothers Are Urged to Eat Organic

Many recent studies investigating pesticides and pregnancy and pesticides and children’s health found that agricultural chemicals such as chlorpyrifos, 2,4-D and permethrins are linked to increased risk of brain damage, cancer and other serious conditions.
By Barbara Pleasant
June/July 2014
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Kids are especially vulnerable to chemicals, and thus will benefit greatly from eating organically grown food.
Photo by Fotolia/Brian jackson


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Pesticides and other chemicals in food are a threat to people of all ages, but a batch of recent studies show that children and expectant mothers pay the highest price for pesticide exposure.

A 2012 study from researchers at University of California, Davis and UCLA found that, based solely on what kids participating in the study ate, cancer benchmark levels “were exceeded by all children (100 percent) for arsenic, dieldrin, DDE and dioxins.” The team’s strongest advice for avoiding cancer, based on this finding? Children should eat primarily organic dairy products, fruits and vegetables to reduce pesticide intake.

Mainstream health professionals have been slow to advocate organic food consumption, but many have voiced concerns about the cumulative effect pesticides have on young brains and bodies. Many chemicals consumed daily by kids who eat conventional and processed foods are endocrine disruptors, which means the chemicals are capable of interfering with development. And though pesticides and children decidedly don’t mix, kids are still exposed in many ways, and they’re taking in huge doses. In a 2013 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study, urine samples from 135 preschool children tested positive for three unwelcome chemicals: chlorpyrifos (99 percent of children), 2,4-D (92 percent) and permethrins (64 percent). Though not tested for in this study, neonicotinoids are another pervasive pesticide threatening children’s health. So, what exactly are these chemicals?

Chlorpyrifos is an organophosphate insecticide used on grains, cotton, fruits, nuts, vegetable crops, lawns and ornamental plants. In a 2012 study funded by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, pregnant women’s exposure to chlorpyrifos was associated with brain damage in their children that resulted in reduced intelligence. Numerous studies have suggested a link between childhood exposure to organophosphate insecticides and attention-deficit disorders.

2,4-D is one of the most widely used herbicides in the world, and its application rate is about to increase even more thanks to the deployment of new crops genetically engineered to be resistant to it. Water and residues on food are sources of this endocrine disruptor, and recent tests suggest some 2,4-D may be laced with dioxin, one of the most potent of all known carcinogens.

Permethrins are increasingly abundant, broad-spectrum insecticides for indoor and outdoor application. A 2013 Canadian study found permethrins in 97 percent of urine samples from grade-school children. Another 2013 study, published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, found high permethrin levels in New York City residents. More than any other pesticide group, permethrins have been linked to autism. If a child is genetically predisposed to autism, exposure to permethrins can activate the disorder. The EPA classifies permethrins as “likely to be carcinogenic to humans,” but permethrin insecticides are used on many food crops, and are the most common active ingredient in indoor/outdoor insect sprays (look for active ingredients ending in “rin”). Mosquito misting systems spray permethrins into the air several times a day, indoor foggers gas homes or buildings with permethrins, and any insecticide that claims to “kill on contact” usually includes a permethrin as an active ingredient. Chances of direct exposure rise in summer, when these insecticides are most commonly sprayed, but permethrins can persist in dust on surfaces, especially in enclosed spaces. Young children are apt to come into contact with toxic chemical dusts because they typically spend so much time close to the ground.

Neonicotinoids are potent pesticides notorious for killing bees, and residues do persist on fruits and vegetables. A 2012 Japanese study was the first to show that neonicotinoids affect brain development in mammals. The researchers warned that “detailed investigation of the neonicotinoids is needed to protect the health of human children.”

The compendium of chemicals that may threaten children’s health is much longer, and a 2013 Australian study revealed that exposure of either the mother or father to certain pesticides during the year before a child’s birth can even increase risk of brain cancer for the child. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently called for more research on links between pesticides and children’s ailments — specifically birth defects, childhood cancers, behavior disorders and asthma. It also advocates feeding children organic food to lower pesticide exposure, asserting that young children whose brains are developing are uniquely vulnerable to chemicals. While eating organic food doesn’t address other areas of exposure to cancer-causing pesticides,when it comes to kids, the benefits of an organically grown diet are especially vital. For information on which conventionally grown fruits and vegetables have the most pesticide residues, go to the Environmental Working Group’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce.


Contributing editor Barbara Pleasant gardens in southwest Virginia, where she grows vegetables, herbs, fruits, flowers and a few lucky chickens. Contact Barbara by visiting her website or finding her on .


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