Pesticides and your child’s health

I am going to take a one day break from my series on solving childhood obesity to mention this study that I just read about.  The study shows that children exposed to small amounts of pesticides have a significantly higher risk of developing ADHD.

In my last blog I spoke about controlling chemical exposures to limit obesity in children.  This study reveals yet another reason you should be wary of what goes in your child’s mouth.  The study looked at pesticides that are used on fruits and vegetables to improve the yield of a crop.  Sure, the pesticides work because they stop insect infestation but at what cost.

The pesticides are in a class of compounds called organophosphates.  These organophosphates are neurotoxins (toxic to the nervous system).  They act by inactivating an enzyme called acetylcholinesterase (A-see-tal-kole-in-es-ter-ace).  By inactivating this enzyme in an insect they die.  The problem?  Humans also need this enzyme to function.

In the human brain the neurotransmitter acetylcholine (A-see-tal-kole-een) is used for many things.  It is essential for learning and memory.  Acetylcholinesterase is also present in the brain.  It is designed to breakdown excess acetycholine.  By inactivating this key enzyme you may have too much neurotransmitter causing detrimental side effects.

This recent study isn’t the first to link organophosphates to ADHD, but it is the first to look at exposure to the general population.  Other studies have looked at farming communities and workers.

Researchers measured the levels of pesticide byproducts in the urine of 1,139 children from across the United States. Children with above-average levels of one common byproduct had roughly twice the odds of getting a diagnosis of ADHD, according to the study, which appears in the journal Pediatrics.

Where is the exposure coming from?  The EPA has banned most organophosphates from general lawn and garden use so the exposure is likely our fruit and vegetable supply.  That’s a scary thought because these are supposed to be our healthiest options.

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.

Nearly 95% of the children studied had detectable levels of organophosphate metabolites in their urine.  The children with the most had the highest rates of ADHD.

I always encourage my patients to eat organic or at the very least buy local.  Organic is best because it ensures that there is very little, if any, pesticide residue on your fruit or vegetable.  Buying local is also good because studies have shown that local produce also has less pesticide on it.

In my practice I see children with ADHD very frequently and our first step is always to clean up the diet and go as organic as possible.  In general parents are receptive to this which is good.  Most of the time, however, they get very little support from their family doctor or their child’s pediatrician.  In general I find, pediatricians don’t believe diet or chemical exposure has anything to do with ADHD.  It’s nice to finally have a study that will be published in their own trade journal that proves it does matter what a child eats.

The authors of the study suggest washing and peeling fruits and vegetables before you eat them.  I agree with the washing advice but don’t suggest you peel anything.  The skins of fruits and veggies is where some of the best nutrients are.  They are important to consume.  My advice is to buy organic and still wash the fruit or vegetable.  This will significantly reduce your risk of consuming organophosphates.

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Filed under Brain Health, Environmental Health

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