One of the more widely reported news stories today reports that a nationwide study suggests that children exposed to higher levels of a type of pesticide found in trace amounts on commercially grown fruit and vegetables are more likely to have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder than children with less exposure.
According to CNN :
Exposure to the pesticides, known as organophosphates, has been linked to behavioral and cognitive problems in children in the past, but previous studies have focused on communities of farm workers and other high-risk populations. This study is the first to examine the effects of exposure in the population at large.
Organophosphates are “designed” to have toxic effects on the nervous system, says the lead author of the study, Maryse Bouchard, Ph.D., a researcher in the department of environmental and occupational health at the University of Montréal. “That’s how they kill pests.”
The pesticides act on a set of brain chemicals closely related to those involved in ADHD, Bouchard explains, “so it seems plausible that exposure to organophosphates could be associated with ADHD-like symptoms.”
Environmental Protection Agency regulations have eliminated most residential uses for the pesticides (including lawn care and termite extermination), so the largest source of exposure for children is believed to be food, especially commercially grown produce. Adults are exposed to the pesticides as well, but young children appear to be especially sensitive to them, the researchers say.
Detectable levels of pesticides are present in a large number of fruits and vegetables sold in the U.S., according to a 2008 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture cited in the study. In a representative sample of produce tested by the agency, 28 percent of frozen blueberries, 20 percent of celery, and 25 percent of strawberries contained traces of one type of organophosphate. Other types of organophosphates were found in 27 percent of green beans, 17 percent of peaches, and 8 percent of broccoli.
A direct cause-and-effect link between pesticides and ADHD “is really hard to establish,” says Dana Boyd Barr, Ph.D., a professor of environmental and occupational health at Emory University. However, she says, “There appears to be some relation between organophosphate pesticide exposure and the development of ADHD.” …
I have no doubt that there is some real danger from pesticides. In fact I am sure there is some danger not only to children but also to adults. I also believe there is clear danger to the environment in which we live.
But I also wonder if there would be sufficient food in the world for the nearly seven billion people currently living without pesticides. It is a dangerous tightrope we walk, the tradeoff between use of pesticides to raise sufficient food to feed us all and also to control the insects that spread the multitude of diseases that would rapidly decimate human populations and the contamination of our environment and our bodies.
We could be very naïve about the world we live in and return to nature. But there would be very few of us; and we sure would not be sharing this discussion over the Internet. I for one am a little worried the cockroaches would take over.
So, we should not over react. We should not suggest that pesticides should be banned just because there is risk in their use. Rather, we should insist in strong regulatory oversight of their use. We should insist that our government maintains a strong, independent research program that provides a check of the pesticide industry and its claims. We should insist that we have a strong independent press that can openly investigate reports of indiscretions on the pesticide industry. We should be cautious, but we should also be realistic. We live in a world that is a careful balance between the natural world and the world we have modified. We must never forget just how thin that tightrope upon which we all balance actually is.
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