May 12, 2006: A while back a group of medical researchers
in the Seattle area started to measure the concentration of
organophosphorus insecticides in the urine of pre-school children.
Most children had sizable concentrations well over FDA recommended
safe levels. Given what we are learning, I wonder if we scientists
really know enough to set a “safe toxic level”
for kids confident that it will still seem “safe”
in the coming decades.
As in many scientific investigations, a few children were
found to be atypical. In this case, their toxic levels were
way under the rest of the kids measured. Interviewing the
parents of these rare cases, researchers learned that their
parents chose certified organic foods for the kids. With this
tantalizing lead, the researchers expanded their trial to
evaluate equal numbers of children eating conventional and
organic diets. Again measuring urine samples, they found a
whopping eight-fold increase of organophosphate contamination
in the conventional non-organic group compared to the organic
These findings point to the importance of how food is produced
and how the exposure to synthetic chemistry varies accordingly.
Parents worried about their children’s exposure to contaminants
can take measures to help protect their brood by lessening
and eliminating these unnecessary toxic exposures. Eating
organically certified food or food you produce yourself without
chemical inputs is a rational protective step with benefits
confirmed through rigorous scientific study.
Organophosphorus (also called organophosphate) insecticides
were originally developed in Germany during World War II.
They act to inhibit acetyl cholinesterase, an enzyme fundamental
for nerve transmission in humans, other mammals and insects.
It takes a much higher dose to kill a human than to kill a
bug, but death by herbicide poisoning is not the only problem.
There is robust scientific literature showing the ability
of organophosphates to impact human developmental activity
at far below lethal doses, due in part to these compounds'
tendency to bio-accumulate within animals.
Our regulatory system mostly ignores the long-term effects
of agrichemicals as our bodies encounter their residues. Noted
University of Wisconsin animal scientist Warren Porter has
shown that sub-toxic developmental effects of agrichemicals
and mixtures that form synergistic damage are the Achilles
Heel of the environmental regulatory system.
Organic farmers and consumers make many decisions to put
health first in how to farm and what to eat. Why would we
willingly throw the dice with our personal health or that
of our family?
Porter points out that humans have the ability to de-toxify
synthetic chemical residues only after puberty. This is because
a child’s liver lacks key enzymes for this mission.
Parents, nutritionists and policymakers need to make food
choices realizing that children are much more vulnerable to
chemical assault than are adults, and will accumulate toxic
substances over a longer timeframe.
Dr. Elizabeth Guillette from the University of Florida has
studied the influence of agrichemicals on the development
of the Yaqui Indians children in Mexico. She identified within
the Yaqui tribe one group which had accepted the introduction
of chemical agriculture and has resided in a valley where
it is practiced extensively. Another Yaqui group moved up
into the surrounding hills to practice traditional lifestyles,
avoiding chemical agriculture.
Guillette’s studies identified that the chemically
exposed valley children lagged in every measurement of development
including coordination, learning and memory. Many of the valley
children could not draw the basic elements of a human even
at 4 and 5 years old, putting them into a group of people
believed to have little or no potential to develop appreciable
social skills. The following illustration shows typical examples
of the drastic developmental difference associated with valley
(chemically exposed) and hill people who were largely unexposed
to chemical agriculture.
Atrazine, the most-applied corn herbicide in the U.S., is
infamous for washing into our surface and ground water, its
persistence for years in our soil and even its ability to
invade our atmosphere. Although this chemical is agriculturally
banned in Switzerland (where it was discovered and is manufactured),
we still apply millions of pounds annually throughout North
Scientific studies such as The Rodale Institute Farming Systems
Trial regularly show that atrazine is routinely found in water
at rates well over the EPA regulatory level. More importantly,
research led by Tyrone Hayes at the University of California
shows that exposure to even 1/30th of the regulatory dose
changes male frogs into hermaphrodites. It is critical to
note that ambiguous sexual development in humans is an epidemic
in the United States. (You may not be aware of the epidemic
in birth defects we are having, but from 1978 to 1993 the
rate increased more than 5 times.)
A bright spot in this area is the finding that folic acid
can reduce spina bifida by 75 percent if administered to a
mother one month before or after conception. Information is
now pointing to nitrates as sources of superoxidants which
cause the spinal lesions of spina bifida. Folic acid seems
to work as an anti-oxidant antidote to the reactive chemistry
causing the lesions. Atrazine and nitrate invade our water
system from herbicide and fertilizer use, respectively, in
corn. (Both are also common lawn chemicals.)
Even as evidence mounts showing how pesticides impact human
health, the industry has yet to own up to the full extent
of its responsibility. One measure of this disparity of what
we know medically and how we have yet to act in public policy
is the fact that many doctors recommend against breast feeding
due to the high level of toxins within breast milk.
The acknowledged negative impacts of agri-chemistry are accommodated
in current regulations because, regulators say, overall societal
benefits outweigh the risks. Unfortunately food consumers,
not sufficiently aware of all the dangers of agriculture chemistry,
take the risks, while the agrichemical industry derives the
profits. We have yet to see an agrichemical interest step
forward to clean up any of the contamination to our soil,
water or air.
The proliferation of 10,000 registered chemicals which are
tested mostly by the chemical industry itself does not guarantee
our children’s safety. To the contrary, under the present
system it guarantees that our children will have multiple
and repeated exposures to known toxic components.
The good news is that more food grown with fewer chemicals
is becoming more accessible in North America, week by week.
Parents, especially, are seeking out certified organic food
and other foods identified as being more healthful. Currently
about half of the parents in North Americ—and more than
75 percent of European parents—are opting for organic
baby food. While this phase lasts for a short period in a
child’s life, it’s an important time and signifies
a commitment by parents safeguard their young ones.
Both the Seattle parents who served organic food and the
traditional Yaqui who literally took to the hills to avoid
agricultural chemicals show the wisdom of being proactive
for healthy food. The future of your children—and the
farmers who want to raise their food—depends on it.