Today’s Pesticides Mean Trouble for Tomorrow’s Children

A physicians group says chemicals used in agriculture and other industries are affecting global reproductive health.

(Photo: Paul Grebliunas/Getty Images)

Oct 2, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

There are a lot of places where there are a lot of toxic chemicals. Like, say, a Superfund site such as the Gowanus Canal in New York City or a mining waste facility. Also, your kitchen. According to numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average American has traces of 29 pesticides present in his or her body. According to an opinion piece published Thursday in the International Journal of Gynecology and Obstetrics, the exposure through food is part of an extensive threat to global health—especially for future generations.

“We are drowning our world in untested and unsafe chemicals, and the price we are paying in terms of our reproductive health is of serious concern,” Gian Carlo Di Renzo, the lead author of the paper, told Reuters.

The members of the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics who wrote the paper mention the pesticide chlorpyrifos—which is commonly sprayed on everything from soy to citrus to grapes—in the same breath as lead and mercury as among the chemicals that interfere “with one of more critical periods of human development leading to developmental neurotoxicity.”

“Consequently,” they continue, “even small exposures during a window of vulnerability can trigger adverse health consequences that can manifest across the life span of individuals and generations.”

While the long-term health effects of the kind of low-level pesticide exposure we get through eating produce remain unknown, the research that’s been conducted on farmworkers and their children is sobering. Research conducted by the University of California, Berkeley, in California’s Salinas Valley, a major vegetable growing region, found that exposure to organophosphates like chlorpyrifos during pregnancy was associated with as much as a seven-point decline in IQ scores for seven-year-olds. Another study, performed at UC Davis, found that living in close proximity to fields sprayed with organophosphates might result in higher autism rates.

With the World Health Organization’s cancer research group saying that the world’s most commonly used herbicide, glyphosate, is a “probable carcinogen,” and both state and federal regulatory efforts promising safer handling and applications of pesticides, the issue of chemical exposure in agriculture is receiving an increasing amount of attention in the U.S.

But the FIGO members who wrote the paper warn that developing countries are set to see the most growth in chemical manufacturing in the next five years—and regulations for producing, handling, and disposing of those chemicals, in agriculture or other fields, may be more lax in those countries.

On the retail end of the supply chain, pesticides are a concern to 85 percent of Americans, according to a recent Consumer Reports survey. But buying organic—the easiest way to limit exposure through diet—can be a financial burden.

Still, the FIGO authors recommend, in part, policies “that foster a healthy food chain.”

“This includes increasing the capacity for women and men who are planning a family,” the authors continue, “as well as pregnant and breast-feeding women, to eat fresh fruits and pesticide-free vegetables, legumes, and whole grains daily, to avoid fast foods and other processed foods whenever possible.”