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Another Class of Pesticides Is Destroying Brains

While there are many sources of exposure to toxic chemicals, the use of organophosphates (OPs) is making news once again for the damage it causes to children's brains.

A group of environmental and public health researchers from the U.S. and Canada suggest prenatal exposure to OPs is putting children at risk for behavioral and cognitive deficits, as well as neurodevelopmental disorders. For this reason, they are calling for a global phaseout of these toxic chemicals, among other measures.

OP Pesticides Flagged as Significant Risk to Children and Pregnant Women

Authors of a study published in the journal PLOS Medicine1 suggest OPs pose significant health risks to children, including attention and memory deficits, autism and reduced IQ.

Based on a meta-analysis of data and literature on OPs contained in a United Nations (U.N.) database2 housing information reported by 71 countries, the team asserts these chemicals are such a significant threat to the health of children and pregnant womenthey should be banned.

With respect to the findings, lead author, professor Irva Hertz-Picciotto, Ph.D., environmental epidemiologist and director of the Environmental Health Sciences Core Center at the University of California, Davis, called the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to action, saying:3

"We have compelling evidence from dozens of human studies that exposures of pregnant women to very low levels of organophosphate pesticides put children and fetuses at risk for developmental problems that may last a lifetime. By law, the EPA cannot ignore such clear findings: It's time for a ban not just on chlorpyrifos, but all organophosphate pesticides."

Picciotto and her team noted:4

  • OP compounds were originally developed in the 1930s and 1940s for use as human nerve gas agents; some were later adapted at lower doses for use as insecticides5
  • People are routinely exposed to OP pesticides due to their wide use in agriculture, on golf courses and in homes, parks, rights of way, schools and countless public spaces 
  • More than 40 OP pesticides, including those most commonly used, are now considered by the EPA, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to be moderately or highly hazardous to human health6
  • In the U.S., a number of OP pesticides, including azinphos-methyl, chlorpyrifos, dichlorvos and malathion, were licensed for insecticidal use prior to the establishment of regulations requiring them to be evaluated for ecologic and human health impacts7
  • To date, U.S. regulators have already banned 26 out of 40 OP pesticides considered to be human health hazards, whereas the European Union has banned 33 of 398


Pesticide Bans Vary by Country and Are Not Well Enforced

The researchers were quick to note pesticide regulations vary widely around the world and are not always well enforced. Even when a certain toxic pesticide is banned in one country, it can still be exported elsewhere.

Very often these products end up in developing countries. Regions like Central America, where agricultural chemicals are less regulated, have been impacted.9 In addition, earlier this year, I discussed how agrochemicals have increased birth defects and deformities in Argentinian children.

Authors of a 2001 study published in the journal Toxicology10 observed developing countries with warmer climates, where the growing season allows for the cultivation of two or three crops a year — much of which is exported to regions with colder climates and shorter growing seasons — are increasingly impacted by toxic agricultural chemicals. The researchers stated:11

"Many older, [nonpatentable], more toxic, environmentally persistent and inexpensive chemicals are used extensively in developing nations, creating serious acute health problems and local and global environmental contamination.

Few developing nations have a clearly expressed 'philosophy' concerning pesticides. There is a lack of rigorous legislation and regulations to control pesticides, as well as training programs for personnel to inspect and monitor use."

According to the current study, at least a dozen OP pesticides classified by the WHO/FAO as highly hazardous are still being used in Mexico.12 Based on the large amount of produce imported to the U.S. from that country, such news is of particular concern to Americans. This is just one more reason to avoid conventional produce and buy organic fruits and vegetables as often as possible.

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