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We all know the pesticides on our food are "bad for us," so we rinse our produce and sometimes even buy organic. But even living near crop-dusted fields is linked to lower IQ, developmental delay and autism spectrum disorders.
Triple the risk
This most recent study, published in Environmental Health Perspectives, tracked the mothers of 970 children for exposure to pesticides. The mothers exposed to organophosphates (a common pesticide) were 60 per cent more likely to give birth to children on the autism spectrum. This study was performed in California, which is one of the few states where pesticide use is monitored and mapped. Researchers paired the data from California's Pesticide Use Report with the residential addresses of the children involved in the study. "Women who live within a mile of organophosphate or pyrethroids agricultural pesticide applications were more likely to have a child with autism spectrum than women living further away," according to lead author of the study, Janie Shelton. She goes on to caution that, when women are exposed to organophosphates later in pregnancy, the risk of autism could increase "as much as threefold."
What are organophosphates?
Organophosphates are "some of the most common and most toxic insecticides used today, adversely affecting the human nervous system even at low levels of exposure," according to the Pesticide Action Network. "Children can be exposed to OPs through the air, food, dust and soil, and even pets. Children of farmworkers and children in agricultural areas are among the most exposed to OPs, although urban children are also at risk." Because OPs affect the brain, it's not surprising that there are a variety of other known risks associated with exposure, such as reproductive effects, cancer and even Parkinson's disease.
As convinced as you may be that organophosphates are straight poison, it seems a daunting task to eliminate pesticides from one's diet. But these sorts of changes don't happen overnight: Just make one change today. There are some produce items known to be laden with pesticides; these are called "the dirty dozen," and you should always purchase them organic. Others, "the clean 15," are generally safe to buy non-organic. Take this list with you on your next grocery run and put a major dent in your pesticide consumption.
^The dirty dozen
- Domestic blueberries
- Sweet bell peppers
- Spinach, kale and collard greens
- Imported grapes
^The clean 15
- Sweet corn
- Sweet peas
- Sweet potatoes
- Sweet onions
When it comes down to it, pesticides are bad news even if the autism link turns out to be bogus. Pesticides kill "pests" because they are neurotoxins; they fry the nervous systems of the creatures that ingest them. They're in our soil, our water, our air, and our oh-so-delicious strawberry shortcake. Even the smallest changes can make a huge difference over time. See the Environmental Working Group's Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce to learn more.