Child Health Guide: Holistic Pediatrics for Parents
Organic Foods, Pesticides, and Children
excerpt from Child Health Guide
Excerpt from Child Health Guide: Holistic Pediatrics for Parents, Randall Neustaedter OMD, 2002, North Atlantic Books
Dangers of pesticides for children
Pesticides pose several risks to children. They cause physical symptoms, impair mental function, disrupt hormone function, and increase the risk of developing cancer. Physical symptoms of pesticide exposure include respiratory problems and asthma, headaches, nausea, skin rashes, genetic damage linked to neurological disorders, and impaired immune function. Mental symptoms include disorientation, attention problems, and fatigue. Several types of cancers in children have been linked to pesticides, including leukemia, brain cancer, and soft tissue sarcoma.
Hormone disruption is an especially insidious effect of pesticides. Cells have hormone receptor sites that recognize specific hormones that will then trigger a response in the cell. Pesticides, and some other environmental chemicals like petrochemicals and plastics, can mimic hormones and bind to the same receptor sites, stimulating the same effects as hormones. Precocious puberty in young girls, for example, has been linked to pesticide and hormone exposure from foods. Fifty percent of African-American and 15 percent of Caucasian American girls now begin menstruating by age 8. All of this estrogenic activity also increases a woman’s risk of developing breast and reproductive organ cancers. These same pesticides may also have the opposite effect, blocking hormones and causing infertility and masculinization of girls.
Pesticides from foods accumulate in children’s bodies. A study published by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has confirmed that children who eat a diet of predominantly organic foods have a much lower amount of pesticide exposure than children fed a conventional diet. The researchers measured by-products of organophosphorus pesticides in the urine of thirty-nine children fed organic and nonorganic diets. All children were aged 2 to 5 years old. Their parents kept a diet diary for three days and then provided twenty-four-hour urine samples for the study. The nonorganic group had six times the level of pesticide by-products compared to the organic group (Curl et al., 2003).
Children are much more likely than adults to develop toxic effects from pesticides. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has drafted an assessment of cancer risk from toxic exposure in children. Based on animal studies and the dynamic action of carcinogens, the report estimates that children under 2 are ten times more likely to develop cancer from exposure to carcinogens than adults, and children between ages 2 and 15 are three times as likely (U.S. EPA, 2003). Small children have less ability to metabolize toxins, and children’s exposure to environmental pesticides tends to be greater than adults’ because of their increased exposure to floors, lawns, and playgrounds, more mouthing of objects, and because they breathe closer to the ground than adults. In addition, children have more skin surface for their size than adults to absorb environmental toxins.
What to do
The answer to this problem of pesticides is to limit children’s exposure as much as possible. Never use commercial pesticides in your home or in your garden or lawn. Lobby in your community to stop the spraying of pesticides at schools. Finally, eat organic foods whenever possible.
Buy organic produce if you can. Clean commercially grown produce with a vegetable and fruit wash (available at health food stores, made from enzymes and surfactants that remove residual sprays on produce with skins). This is not a completely reliable method of eliminating pesticides because they may be absorbed into the body of the fruit or vegetable, but it helps.
Some fruits and vegetables have much more pesticide residues than others. A study from the United Kingdom showed that pesticide residues on some fruits are uncommonly high. Some apples, pears, raspberries, and grapes contained pesticides that exceeded the legal limits of permitted residues. The list goes on: Lettuce, cherries, and pumpkins also contained potentially dangerous levels of toxic pesticide residues. The produce originated from all over the world—grapes from Brazil and Europe, lettuce from Spain, and cherries from Canada (Pesticide Residues Committee, 2003).
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has created a list of the most contaminated fruits and vegetables. The EWG recommends buying foods in the most contaminated group from organic sources. Other produce items are relatively safe from commercial sources with consistently low levels of pesticides. (For further information, check out www.foodnews.org.)
Highest in Pesticides
Buy organic or unsprayed:
Lowest in Pesticides
Safe to buy from commercial sources:
Whenever possible, buy animal products, including milk, eggs, chicken, turkey, beef, and pork, that are free of pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones. Organic eggs are readily available. Commercially raised chickens are housed in individual one-foot cages stacked in huge warehouses. They are fed a diet of antibiotics and grains laden with pesticides. Free-range chickens have access to the ground and to the outdoors. If they are labeled organic, then their feed contains no pesticides. Similarly, organic dairy cattle are fed no animal products and no pesticide-treated grass or grain. They are not treated with antibiotics. And they are given no growth hormones.
Beef and pork products should be free of hormones and antibiotics. Packaged meats should be nitrate and nitrite free. If you cannot get free-range poultry, then don’t eat the skin. Pesticides tend to concentrate in the fat. The highest-quality beef is labeled organic. This means that the grain fed to the cattle in feedlots is free of pesticides.