Your child's health becomes the center of your universe when you become a parent. And while most parents wouldn't dream of harming a child, chemical companies and lackluster laws have made it tough to protect kids from pesticide threats. Chemical pesticides aren't required by law to go through stringent testing for long-term health impacts before they hit the market, but independent researchers are piecing together tidbits of the pesticide puzzle, turning over evidence that makes it clear that even minute exposures in the womb and during infancy and early childhood could lead to serious health setbacks for children.
A 2013 Brazilian study identified a connection between a mother's exposure to pesticides in her household and workplace and two types of rare cancers in babies, acute lymphoid leukemia (ALL) and acute myeloid leukemia (AML). The researchers found that mothers who said they were exposed to pesticides at least once had a two- to seven-times greater risk of having a child diagnosed with one of these cancers before the age of 2. This is just the latest evidence highlighting the pesticides and cancer risk in children.
Mitigate the Risk: Whether a women is trying to become pregnant, is pregnant, or is nursing, it's important that she to avoid pesticides. The Brazilian study in particular found that the insect-killing chemical permethrin caused a spike in childhood cancer risk. Permethrin is commonly used on some food crops and in mosquito-repelling clothing, flea and tick products for pets, and household bug sprays. For natural mosquito protection, try sprays that use soybean or geranium oils, not chemicals, to repel the biting pests.
Levels of pesticides commonly encountered across the country in food as well as around the home are significantly increasing children's risk of developing attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), according to a 2010 Harvard study published in the journal Pediatrics. Children with substantially higher levels of a breakdown product of neurotoxic organophosphate pesticides were twice as likely to be diagnosed with ADHD.
Mitigate the Risk: Eat organic. The science shows that switching to an organic diet reduces the levels of pesticides in your body by 85 to 90 percent.
Researchers from Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City found a surprising connection between food allergies and the levels of a pesticide breakdown product in urine. People with high levels of dichlorophenol, a breakdown product of the herbicide 2,4-D and of the chlorine used to disinfect tap water, were more likely to suffer allergies to milk, eggs, seafood, and peanuts. Dichlorophenol acts like an antimicrobial and could interfere with healthy bacterial levels in the gut, which, in turn, could upset the body's natural immune reactions to certain allergens in food.
Mitigate the Risk: A Standard 53 water filter certified by NSF/ANSI is proven to reduce levels of 2,4-D in your drinking water. Look for faucet-mount filters and shower filters that have this certification to reduce your exposure.
It's the million-dollar question: "How do you get autism?" Emerging research suggests its causes are a mix of genetics and environmental exposures, particularly insect-killing chemicals designed to throw off a bug's neurological functioning. Unfortunately, that neurological scrambling could occur in children, too. Researchers saw higher rates of autism in kids born to mothers living in areas where high levels of organophosphate pesticides are sprayed.
Mitigate the Risk: Avoid primes sources of organophosphate chemical contamination. These chemicals are commonly sprayed on nonorganic snap beans, tomatoes, and watermelons. Instead of reaching for chemical roach and ant baits, use natural home pest-control measures to further reduce chemical exposures.
Children born to mothers with higher levels of pesticides in their bodies during pregnancy go on to experience lower IQ scores in elementary school, according to research published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives in 2012. One study found a seven-point reduction of IQ in children whose mothers had the highest levels of pesticides, compared with the group with the lowest levels of pesticides.
Just as alarming, a second study detected actual brain damage in children born to mothers exposed to chlorpyrifos, a common bug-killing organophosophate chemical used in nonorganic farming. And one report looked at 25 million children ages 5 and younger and found that exposure to organophosphate pesticides accounts for a collective 17 million lost IQ points, a loss that includes economic ramifications, too: Lower IQs mean lost productivity and an increased need for health care and remediation in school, according to experts.
Mitigate the Risk:
To afford organic food as often as possible, cook from scratch instead of relying on processed organic foods. Eat in season and buy in bulk then preserve food when possible. Visiting your local farmer's market or joining a community-supported agriculture program is a great way to find organic, local foods in season, when costs are often lower. For inexpensive sources of organic protein, look for organic dried beans—they are dirt cheap and high in nutrients.