Why Children, Pregnant Women Should Eat Food With Fewer Pesticides

Two cute little sisters eating cereal with strawberries and drinking milk in white kitchen
Two cute little sisters eating cereal with strawberries and drinking milk in white kitchen

"For many children, diet may be the most influential source" of pesticides, said the Academy of Pediatrics in a landmark report published in November 2012.

The Academy, which represents more than 60,000 pediatricians, advised parents to "minimize using foods in which chemical pesticides were used" in order to reduce "unnecessary exposure."

EWG agrees, which is why we issue the annual Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce. The guide encourages parents to make sure that their children eat plenty of healthy fruits and vegetables while minimizing their exposure to the pesticide residues found on some conventionally grown produce -- even after it's been thoroughly washed.

Experts who have dedicated their careers to protecting children from the risks of synthetic pesticides agree. Dr. Philip Landrigan, whose early research in the 1970s helped eliminate the use of lead in paint and gasoline, is one of the foremost authorities. He urges parents to feed children organic produce when feasible instead of conventionally grown products, especially those that have high amounts of pesticide residues.

"While there has been significant progress to reduce children's exposure to the most toxic pesticides, we have learned even more about the capacity of these chemicals to harm the developing fetus and child," says Landrigan, dean of global health and director of the Children's Environmental Health Center at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine. "Parents looking for help in lowering their children's exposure to pesticides while still eating plenty of healthy fruits and vegetables can turn to EWG's guide as an easy-to-use resource when shopping at the store."

Many kids, like my five- and seven-year olds, eat a lot of fruit. And children consume much more food relative to their body weight than adults do, which can increase the amount of pesticides they're exposed to if they're eating conventionally grown strawberries, apples and grapes. The brain and nervous systems of young children are far from fully developed and are exquisitely sensitive to disruption and damage from industrial chemicals, including pesticides.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture does the annual testing of pesticide residues that EWG uses to create its Shopper's Guide. The most recent round found, among many others, one type of pesticides, called organophosphates, that have been strongly linked to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, in children. Diagnoses of ADHD in American children has surged in recent years, and leading researchers, including Landrigan, point to organophosphates as one of the driving factors.

Although the use of organophosphates has declined, they were detected once again in the most recent USDA tests, reflected in EWG's 2016 guide. The tests on strawberries found one notorious organophosphate, malathion, along with another group of widely used insecticides called pyrethroids, which also appear to pose risks of ADHD. Another insecticide, called bifenthrin, found on more than 40 percent of strawberry samples tested in 2014, has been classified as a possible human carcinogen by California regulators.

Children's contacts with pesticides begin even before birth, however, so women who are pregnant or wish to become pregnant should also try to reduce their exposure. Agricultural chemicals have been detected in the umbilical cord blood that nourishes the unborn fetus, and the mother's diet can be a primary source. In 2004, laboratory testing commissioned by EWG found a number of pesticides in the umbilical cord blood of all 10 newborn babies tested.

Parents and pregnant women can consult the Dirty Dozen list in EWG's Shopper's Guide to see which produce they should consider purchasing organic, and use the Clean Fifteen list to see which conventionally grown varieties have the fewest residues.

Organic produce usually does cost more, of course, but there is evidence that it has a real payoff. A 2006 study took 23 elementary school children off a diet of largely conventional foods and put them on an all-organic diet for five days. The researchers tested the children's urine twice a day for 15 days and found that the levels of malathion and another pesticide, chlorpyrifos, plummeted to "non-detect levels immediately after the introduction of organic diets." Both pesticides "remained nondetectable until the conventional diets were reintroduced," wrote the scientists, led by Dr. Chensheng (Alex) Lu, now with the Harvard School of Public Health.

"Research that I and others have conducted clearly shows children can dramatically reduce the levels of pesticides in their bodies by eating organic fruits and veggies, or those conventional versions that regularly have far fewer pesticide residues," says Lu. He adds that "when choosing an all-organic diet is not an option... one way to give children a healthy diet with plenty of fresh produce is to consult EWG's Shopper's Guide."

Some groups that represent big agribusiness and pesticide interests, including those in California that grow the most strawberries and other major produce staples for the U.S. market, regularly attack EWG's Shopper's Guide. They claim that it's the reason Americans generally don't eat enough fruits and veggies, which is laughable. As if people would choose a healthy, plant-based diet instead of one packed with processed meats and junk food if only EWG would stop issuing that pesky list every year.

EWG's consistent advice for everyone is to consume plenty of nutrient-rich produce - organic or conventional. But if you can, go with organic for products that are high in pesticide residues. Ingesting toxic pesticides, even at low levels, is probably not good for you - and especially not good for young children and pregnant women.

Of course, I'm not telling you anything really new. The steadily growing surge in sales and demand for organic produce from consumers and retailers is all the evidence anyone needs that Americans simply don't want to eat pesticides with their food.

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