Opinion: Eliminating the Pesticides Inside Us

Unless you and your family are eating a completely organic diet, chances are you’ve got plenty of pesticides in your body. A groundbreaking new study provides fresh evidence that we are exposed to multiple pesticides in our daily food.

This peer-reviewed organic diet biomonitoring study, published in the scientific journal Environmental Research, reaffirms years of warnings from environmental scientists and public health experts about the dangers of eating foods grown using pesticides, many of which are carcinogenic or toxic to our neurological and endocrine systems.

What’s unique about this study is its scope: examining diet and pesticides in four diverse American families living in Oakland, Calif., Minneapolis, Atlanta, and Baltimore, the study found several major agricultural pesticides and their breakdown products, called metabolites, in their bodies. Over a one-week period, researchers found 14 chemicals representing exposure to four classes of pesticides — organophosphates, pyrethroids, the neonicotinoid clothianidin and the phenoxyherbicide 2,4-D — in every study participant.

These pesticides — used to grow many of our favorite foods, from apples to tomatoes — are designed to be toxic, and a growing body of scientific evidence shows they can harm humans through both direct exposures and food consumption.

The new findings confirm the old adage, we are what we eat — but they also show we can change this potentially harmful reality. On the hopeful side, after just one week of an all-organic diet, the pesticides levels in all study participants decreased dramatically.

Testing the families after they consumed organic foods, researchers found that levels of all detected chemicals dropped an average of 60.5 percent in just six days on an organic diet with a range of 37 to 95 percent depending on the compound.

In one especially important finding, participants’ levels of the highly toxic pesticide chlorpyrifos dropped by 61 percent after just one week of organic foods. Chlorpyrifos is a neurotoxic pesticide linked to increased rates of autism, learning disabilities and reduced IQ in children and is also one of the pesticides most often linked to farmworker poisonings.

This study is not just interesting on its face – it also hits close to home. One of the participating families in the study lives in Baltimore and saw remarkable results. Over the weeklong study, levels of pesticides in this family’s diet dropped by 74 percent overall, and chlorpyrifos levels dropped by 73percent.

Devon Payne-Sturges

During my tenure at the Environmental Protection Agency, I managed the human health extramural research on prenatal exposures to chlorpyrifos. We reviewed nearly 20 years of research demonstrating that chlorpyrifos harms children. Prenatal exposure to chlorpyrifos, from dietary exposure, can result in long-term, potentially irreversible changes in the unborn and developing child’s brain structure.

In 2015 and 2016, EPA scientists proposed to end all agricultural uses of chlorpyrifos because of the connections between prenatal exposures and children’s impaired cognition, autism, ADHD, developmental delays, memory deficits and other serious neurodevelopmental problems. But the Trump administration’s EPA promptly reversed this recommendation, putting our families and children at significant health risk.

A bill has been introduced in the Maryland General Assembly to ban chlorpyrifos in our state. Several other states are also moving in this direction.

Policymakers should closely review this study – and all of the evidence on chlorpyrifos – and act in the public interest to ban this dangerous chemical.

This important new study shows how an organic diet can reduce our exposure to hazardous pesticides. We owe it to ourselves, our children and to our society’s health as a whole, to provide all consumers with a nutritious organic diet free of toxic pesticide residues. As Tara, a study participant from Baltimore, told researchers, “Everyone has the right to clean organic food. That is a human right.”

— Devon Payne-Sturges

The writer is assistant professor of applied environmental health at University of Maryland School of Public Health.

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