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School Snacktime: Toxic Exposure?

Nuts, and any foods containing them, have been banned in my son’s preschool. A child with a nut allergy could suffer a severe reaction if accidentally exposed.

But foods likely containing traces of toxic pesticides are served generously during daily snacktime. These include non-organic fruits, non-organic raisins, non-organic milk.

Shouldn’t every child be safe in school?

In 1947 Time magazine called the pesticide DDT “a benefactor of all humanity.” Hindsight is 20/20, as we shake our heads and think that people back then should have knownbetter—if it’s toxic to insects, it’s probably bad for our children too.

When DDT was banned, and toxic and persistent organochlorine pesticides fell out of favor, a new class of agrichemicals rose to popularity as a replacement. Organophosphates are now the most widely used class of pesticides. Chemical companies promised they would be as effective at killing insects, but without the negative consequences to other life because they quickly degrade in the environment.

Yet organophosphates are neurotoxins. They kill insects by targeting a particular enzyme in the neurological system. The problem is, these enzymes also exist in mammals—including humans. Their metabolites show up in children’s urine. Shouldn’t we know better?

Organic farmers do. They have jumped off the chemical bandwagon. They intuit that any toxin, even “new and improved” ones, may someday be linked to a neurological disease, or endocrine disruption, or cancer.

Rather than join the chemical companies’ ill-fated attempts to conquer nature, and invariably fail after an initial burst of short-term success, organic farmers look to long-term solutions. They work with the balancing forces of nature, rather than against them.

In the case of pest control, this primarily entails shunning the combination of monoculture and agrichemicals, and welcoming diversity back on the farm. Rotating crops is the most effective way to prevent insect damage without resorting to toxic chemicals.

Numerous studies have shown that organophosphate pesticide exposure in the womb and early childhood is associated with neurological problems in childhood and later in life.

These studies measured exposure in farm workers or people living near farm fields. As a result, chemical companies have argued these studies do not apply to dietary exposure from eating conventional foods.

Today’s assurances by chemical companies regarding the safety of organophosphates seem to be no different from their 1940s guarantees about DDT. As with DDT, it would only be a matter of time before science caught up with common sense.

Pesticides Linked to ADHD
That time is now. A 2011 article in Brain Research Bulletin provides some of the “first evidence for a mechanistic relationship between developmental organophosphate exposure and the genes known to confer Parkinson’s Disease risk.” The paper cites earlier studies linking these neurotoxins to Parkinson’s, a neurological disorder.

Additionally, a recent study by researchers from the University of Montreal and Harvard suggests that dietary exposure to organophosphate pesticides may lead to other neurological problems that occur earlier in life than Parkinson’s.
Disturbingly, but not surprisingly, they linked this class of pesticides to Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). It is interesting to note that the pesticide works by blocking a product in the nervous system, which causes impulses to continue to be transmitted when they shouldn’t be.

The study, published in Pediatrics in 2010, analyzed levels of pesticide residues in the urine of more than 1,130 children ages 8 to 15. It found that “children with higher urinary levels of organophosphate metabolites were more likely to meet the diagnostic criteria” for ADHD.

The Organic Alternative
In 2001 scientists studying pesticide residues discovered that all of the 96 children in their research group had measurable levels of organophosphate metabolites in their urine, except for one child, as reported in Environmental Health Perspectives. Upon questioning this child’s parents, they discovered that the family bought exclusively organic produce.

Two years later, these same researchers found that pesticide concentrations in urine samples of children on conventional diets were approximately six times higher than in children on organic diets.
“Consumption of organic produce appears to provide a relatively simple way for parents to reduce their children’s exposure to organophosphate pesticides,” the researchers concluded.

Publishing in the same journal, another team found similar results. Median concentrations of metabolites for two neurotoxic pesticides, one of them chlorpyrifos, decreased to “nondetectable” levels immediately after the children were switched to an organic diet.

More research on the links between neurotoxin residues on foods and neurological diseases is needed. But while we wait for science to catch up with common sense, we have a healthy alternative, thanks to the farmers who choose organic production.

USDA certified organic foods repeatedly show up “clean,” except for the long-living breakdown products of organochlorines like DDT, which have even been found in the tissue of mammals in Antarctica.
This is a reminder that we are still paying for the mistakes made by our parents and grandparents who, decades ago, trusted the chemical companies’ promises. We do not yet know how my son’s generation will pay for today’s hubris. We only know that, somehow, they will.

We should think of every conventional food as bearing the label, “Warning: May Contain Traces of Pesticides That Can Harm Your Child,” just as food produced near nuts bears a similar warning. If it’s not organic, it could lead to long-term health consequences we are only beginning to understand. It is time for preschools, in addition to banning nuts, to start prohibiting the conventional foods that may contain traces of neurological toxins harmful to our children.

Pesticide Residues Exceed Safe Levels in Kids’ Foods
Residues of organophosphate pesticides are unlikely to show up in any of the foods my son eats at home. I choose to support organic farmers and limit my family’s exposure to unnecessary chemical toxins. Therefore, I rarely buy anything without the word organic on the label.

But at school, I wondered how likely it was that one of the fruit snacks my son is served would contain organophosphate residues. I turned to the USDA’s Pesticide Data Program to find out.

I chose to look up the numbers for chlorpyrifos, a commonly used pesticide mentioned in the University of Montreal/Harvard study (see story above) because its presence in children’s bodies is linked with two times the likelihood of developing ADHD.

First, I investigated one of the most popular preschool snacks: sliced apples. A full 30% of domestically produced apples and 80% of imported ones contained chlorpyrifos residues. The average levels were 1.1 micrograms on domestic samples and 2.4 micrograms on imported samples.

The Environmental Protection Agency determined population adjusted doses of chlorpyrifos residues and set the chronic safe level for children at 0.6 micrograms per 100 gram sample. When I made the calculation, I did a double take. With 80% of imported apples containing residues, that’s an average of three times the safe level.
But my jaw dropped when I looked at the next column of numbers.

The highest levels of residues found on a single domestically produced sample was 54 micrograms. Not only does this surpass the chronic safe level for children 90 times, it exceeds the acute safe level five-fold.

My son’s teacher also mentioned grapes and peaches as a popular snack. Checking these fruits’ chlorpyrifos levels, I discovered that nearly a quarter of imported grapes contained residues, with one sample containing 32 times the chronic safe level for children. Over half of imported peach samples had such residues, with an average slightly above the chronic safe level. One peach sample contained 18 times the level considered safe for a child. –C.V.

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