Organic Foods Protect Your Child’s Brain

Are organic foods worth the extra effort and expense? Yes.

Exposure to pesticides is correlated with learning and behavioral problems in children.

A study of more than 1000 U.S. children, published June 2010 in Pediatrics, revealed that children exposed to organophosphate pesticides have one and a half times the risk of developing ADHD. Moreover, those who had higher than the median level of the most common pesticide residue in their urine had TWICE the risk of ADHD, as compared to those whose levels of this pesticide residue were negligible.

By feeding our children organic foods, we may cut their risk of ADHD by one half.

Dr. M. Bouchard, lead author of the study, explained the connection between the pesticides and brain function: “It is very well established that organophosphates disrupt brain neurochemical activity. Indeed, their efficacy as pesticides results from their toxic effect on the central nervous system of insects.”

Animal studies have long shown that prenatal and early postnatal exposures to organophosphates are associated with learning and behavioral problems. These pesticides interfere with an enzyme that the brain needs for metabolizing acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that is critical for brain development in humans and is needed for learning, memory, and concentration.

John Spangler MD, Professor of Family Medicine and Community Medicine at Wake Forest University Medical Center, explained the link between acetylcholine metabolism and the child’s brain development. If acetylcholine metabolism “is altered over a long period of time, brain development will change. Nerve pathways will develop where they should not develop, or fail to develop where they should.”

Animal studies have repeatedly shown that acetylcholine is not the only neurotransmitter affected by organophosphates. These pesticides affect the function of serotonin at the synapse (the junction between neurons). Serotonin is a neurotransmitter associated with learning, memory, and mood. Exposure to pesticides causes lasting emotional effects, especially in male animals, at doses lower than those required to affect acetylcholine. Organophosphates also affect dopamine receptors. A malfunctioning dopamine system is suspected of contributing to ADHD. All three neurotransmitters play a role in brain growth and development.

Dr. Michael Goldstein, pediatric neurologist, summarized the research on organophosphates and ADHD. These data “look like the data we saw 30 to 40 years ago with lead exposure, and it may turn out to be the same thing—that even small exposures [to organophosphates] are very harmful to kids.”

Indeed, researchers have tabulated the toll of pesticide exposure in the test scores of individual children.

A 2008 study of 48 children found that short-term organophosphate exposure was associated with damaging effects on the children’s attention, sequencing, mental flexibility, visual search, concept formation, and conceptual flexibility.

Other studies correlate prenatal exposure to learning problems. A study of more than 300 children, published online August 19, found that a tenfold increase in the mother’s exposure to organophosphate pesticides was correlated with a five-fold increase in the numbers of five-year-olds diagnosed with attention disorders.

A study of infants found that prenatal exposure to organophosphates was associated with pervasive developmental disorder at 24 months.

Another study found that levels of the organophosphate chlorpyrifos in the child’s umbilical cord blood were associated with attention problems and developmental delay at age 3. Compared to the low exposure group, the high exposure group had five times the number of delayed children.

Forty percent of American children have an insufficient margin of safety to protect them from neurological damage caused by organophosphate pesticides, according to calculations by researchers at the EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research, on the basis of the pesticide residues found in American children’s urine during the years 1999-2002.

Eating organic foods quickly reduces the child’s exposure to non-detectable levels of pesticides. Researchers examined the urinary pesticide residues in 23 children over a year. While the children ate conventional foods, their urinary pesticide residues were high. Just five days of replacing conventional with organic fruits and vegetables reduced the children’s pesticide residues to levels that were negligible or undetectable. This study indicates not only that foods are the greatest source of children’s pesticide exposure, but also that the pesticides are quickly removed from the child’s body.

Our choices in the marketplace may determine our children’s future.

Beverly Seng MA, JD, NTP

Nutritional Therapy Practitioner

Bouchard, M. et al. “Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and urinary metabolites of organophosphate pesticides” Pediatrics 2010.

M. Bouchard, quoted in Brooks, M. “Organophosphate pesticides linked to ADHD.“ Medscape Medical News May 17, 2010.

Eskenazi, B. et al. “Pesticide toxicity and the developing brain.” Basic Clinical Pharmacological Toxicology 2008 Feb.; 102(2): 228-236.

John G. Spangler quoted in Neale, .T. “Pesticides linked to ADHD in Kids,” MedPage Today, May 17, 2010.

M. Goldstein quoted in Brooks, M. “Organophosphate pesticides linked to ADHD.” Medscape Medical News May 17, 2010.

Lizardi, P. S., O-Rourke, M.K., Morris, R.J. “The effects of organophosphate pesticide exposure on Hispanic children’s cognitive and behavioral functioning.“ Journal of Pediatric Psychology 2008 Jan-Feb; 33(1): 91-101.

Helwick, C. “More evidence organophosphate pesticides raise ADHD risk in children.” Medscape Medical News August 20, 2010, citing study published in Environmental Health Perspectives online August 19, 2010.

Eskenazi, B. et al. “Pesticide toxicity and the developing brain.” Basic Clinical Pharmacological Toxicology 2008 Feb.; 102(2): 228-236.

Rauh, V. et al. “Impact of chlorpyrifos exposure on neurodevelopment in the first 3 years of life among inner-city children.” Pediatrics 2006 December; 118(6) e1845-e1859. See also Engel, S. et al. “Prenatal organophosphate metabolite and organochlorine levels and performance on the Brazelton Neonatal Behavioral Assessment Scale in a multiethnic pregnancy cohort. American Journal of Epidemiology 2007 June 15; 165(12): 1397-1404 (pesticide exposure was associated with anomalies in reflexes, a sign of loss of neurologic integrity).

Payne-Sturges, D. et al. “Evaluating cumulative organophosphorus pesticide body burden of children: a national case study.” Environmental Science and Technology 2009 Oct. 15; 43(20): 7924-30.

Lu, C. et al. “Dietary intake and its contribution to longitudinal organophosphorus pesticide exposure in urban/suburban children.” Environmental Health Perspectives 2008 Apr; 116 (4) 537-42.

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