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Environmental connections to public health >>

Prenatal Pesticide Exposure Linked to Diminished IQ

Thursday, April 21, 2011

By Sonya Lunder, EWG Senior Scientist

In a 2010 meeting between the pesticide industry and the Obama Administration, the pesticide industry revealed its objective that government food testing data (like the USDA pesticide residue data EWG uses to create our Shopper's Guide to Produce) be spun to emphasize the safety of pesticide residues on conventional produce.

Why?

They're worried you know too much. See, if people know about the health (and environmental) downsides of pesticides, they might, well, not want to eat them. In their own (self-interested, your-health-is-not-their-first-priority) words in this high-level meeting:

"[W]e want to see if we can figure out that whatever data is out there be less likely to be misconstrued and misinterpreted. We're trying to make sure that anyone who reads [USDA's pesticide residue report] sees -- as do all the people in the room -- that there is no risk associated with the consumption of fresh produce due to pesticide residues."

 

But are pesticides really safe? Should fruits and veggie eaters everywhere breath a sigh of relief because there's "no risk," as the pesticide guys want you to believe? Not so fast. The science does not say "no risk" Industry's task spinning pesticides got a bit more difficult today, when a group of 3 long-term studies found that a woman's exposure to organophosphate pesticides during pregnancy could affect IQ and memory in her child 6 to 9 years later.

Researchers at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, University of California Berkeley's School of Public Health and Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health separately recruited pregnant women and tested either their mother's urine during pregnancy or umbilical blood at birth.

All three studies are available for free and online at the Environmental Health Perspectives website. And you can hear it for yourself: on ABC's World News Tonight.

Some restrictions in place, more possibly needed Between 1999 and 2003, EPA put in place restrictions on the most toxic organophosphate pesticides on crops and in homes. In 2006, the Agency concluded those restrictions would be sufficient to protect children's health, but these studies show further restrictions over the use of organophosphates in agriculture may be necessary to protect kid's health.

For years, EPA used complex models to assure us that pesticide exposures were safe. These studies strongly suggest that kids remain at risk. The next time EPA and the pesticide industry tell you all is well with the food system, don't rush to believe them.

Organophosphates have been associated with learning delays and ADHD in children. But the fact that three separate studies arrived at such similar conclusions is overwhelming evidence that this family of pesticides presents profound and very serious health risks to children before they're even born.

Understanding - and avoiding - pesticide residues About that data the pesticide industry is worried you'll be worried about. Each year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture extensively tests fruits and vegetables for pesticide residues. The tests are conducted after each sample has been washed as if being prepared to eat or cook. EWG compiles USDA's data and ranks the most popular fruits and vegetables according to the levels of overall pesticide residues. The cleanest 15 and dirty dozen are listed below (grab the iPhone App or see the full list here):

shoppersguide2010.png

We think there is ample evidence to avoid pesticides, particularly while you are pregnant. Here are the 12 with the highest and lowest levels of pesticide residues from EWG' 2010 Shopper's Guide. The 2011 Guide will be out soon once USDA releases its latest round of produce testing.

EWG's top tips to eat fewer organophosphate pesticides: It makes good sense to avoid these pesticides whenever possible, especially during pregnancy. Here's how:

  1. Eat organic and low-residue fruits and veggies. Organic produce is becoming much more available and the price gap between it and conventionally grown fruits and vegetables has narrowed somewhat, but buying organic can be a burden on families on tight budgets. EWG's online Shopper's Guide to Pesticides provides an easy-to-use list of non-organic items that have the lowest levels of pesticide residues. EWG recommends sticking to those fruits and vegetables whenever possible.
  2. Wash, wash, wash. Washing conventional produce won't remove all of the residues, but it does make a difference. Wash all fruits and vegetables before serving.
  3. Eat food that's in season. It is more likely to be grown domestically where there are tighter restrictions on organophosphate pesticide use.
  4. Pregnant? Make that extra effort to eat organic or low-residue fruits and veggies. Eating fruits and vegetables is an essential part of a healthy diet, but we recommend that women who are pregnant choose organic produce or conventional fruits and veggies with the lowest levels of pesticide residues. And, by all means, avoid farms that spray these chemicals.

For more tips for an environmentally healthy pregnancy, see EWG's 11 Healthy Pregnancy Tips. Those are nine (plus!) very important months, with significant health consequences for babies.

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