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Phosphates, ADHD, DOW & how to eat less pesticides

A study released this week suggests a link between ADHD (Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and pesticides, but rather than shock, it inspired a round of “I told you so”. 

Pesticides are dangerous. Duh!

The news went up that kids exposed to higher levels of a common type of pesticide, organophosphates, were more likely to suffer from ADHD and the blogosphere/comment boxes were filled with a lot of “duh”.

Pesticides are dangerous?? OMG who knew!!“, commented a viewer of the CBS Early Show.

“Well DUH if it can kill a bug by destroying its nervous system it sure can hurt and HARM a human,” argued a reader of Yahoo News. “Its just we’re BIGGER so it takes more pesticide to KILL us but small amounts sure play havoc with all sorts of DISORDERS like MS, ADHD, cancers, skin disorders, etc, etc.”

“So if you put poison chemicals that are designed to disrupt the nervous system of bugs in children’s food and they eat it, their vulnerable brain chemistry gets negatively affected? Duh and double duh,” mocked a San Francisco writer.

Designed to have toxic effects on the nervous system

The lead researcher on the study, Maryse Bouchard, PhD, seconded these sentiments with her explanation that organophosphates- also the basis of nerve gas- were indeed “designed” to have toxic effects on the nervous system. 

“That’s how they kill pests,” she clarified. Since the pesticides act on the same type of brain chemicals closely related to those involved in ADHD, Bouchard commonsensically concluded that, “it seems plausible that exposure to organophosphates could be associated with ADHD-like symptoms.”

A watchdog group that tells you how to eat less pesticides

Three years ago I visited the West Coast office of the consumer watchdog organization Environmental Working Group where I asked VP Bill Walker if we had enough evidence to say whether pesticides were truly bad for us. He didn’t hesitate.

“As far as I’m concerned the jury is in, the evidence is in, on pesticides. There’s studies after studies that show that these are chemicals which there’s absolutely no doubt in testing that they have neurological effects, they have developmental effects. They can play havoc with your thyroid system, your endocrine system, which governs proper growth and development. So especially for kids you really want to try to limit their exposures to pesticides. You probably aren’t going to see some dramatic problem, but you may see some very subtle effects later on in life.”

Recognizing that not everyone can afford, or has access, to organic produce, the EWG puts out a shoppers guide to help you reduce your, or your kids’, pesticide exposure (see video The dirty dozen: shoppers’ guide to organic produce). While explaining their annual list- the Dirty Dozen- of the most pesticide-polluted produce (this year’s top 3 are celery, peaches and strawberries), he echoed what Bouchard, and all those commenters are saying now, “pesticides are made to cause health effects in the organisms that they target but they also cause health effects in us.”

Subsidizing the chemicals on our foods

The EWG also pushes for more funding for organic agriculture. When I talked to him in 2007, they were lobbying for more money for organics from the U.S. Farm Bill (See video The Farm Bill and the fight for organic agriculture). 

“We think that this system has gotten way out of whack in that it rewards the big farmers of some conventional crops like corn, rice and wheat and almost nothing at all goes for fruit and vegetable growers and of that amount that goes to fruit and vegetable growers there’s no specific program aimed at subsidizing organic development.”

Organophosphates as “bad farming”

Since organic agriculture is still a small portion of American crops- only about 1%- it’s unrealistic to expect that farmers will give up pesticides completely right away, but not all pesticides are equally harmful.

One agriculture insider commented to this week’s news by calling organophosphates “bad farming”.

“I have been in agriculture for 30 years and I can tell you that there are plenty of safer alternatives to that class of pesticides… [Organophosphates] are broad spectrum insecticides which are dangerous. They kill both pest and beneficial insects, which results in the need for yet more pesticide use.

Progressive chemical companies don’t even make this stuff anymore, and are developing unique and much safer products. If there is politics anywhere in this story, it’s that companies like Dow Agrosciences are still allowed to produce products like chlorpyrifos.”

Dow pays a big pesticide penalty for misleading advertising

Not being familiar with any pesticides by name, I had to look this one up. It turns out that chlorpyrifos was at one time one of the most widely used household insecticides in the U.S. 

After a 2003 lawsuit by the State of New York, Dow Chemical Company pulled Dursban (their tradename for chlorpyrifos) from the household market after paying the state $2 million- apparently the largest pesticide penalty ever- to the state for illegal advertising of the pesticide as “safe”.

Rather than being impressed by the record-breaking size of the penalty, New York Attorney General at the time Elliott Spitzer saw it as the tip of the iceberg. “I was a bit incredulous and I said go back and check because $2 million does not seem that enormous given the risks and harm that flow from some of these pesticides,” Spitzer argued. “I think we need to do better.”

Are organics really better?

As consumers, and as parents, we wonder whether it’s worth the extra money to buy organic produce. Will a little bit of pesticide really kill us? Probably not, but does it mess with our control systems? It seems so. 

Are organics worth it? I don’t always pay the extra, but I- like so many other researchers, writers, parents- have plenty of doubts about ingesting produce doused in chemicals designed to have toxic effects on the nervous system.

Read below the last comments on pesticides and ADHD from Twitter