Organic choices avoid pesticides

Sound Consumer | May 2014

From the editors, adapted from the Pesticide Action Network and other sources

organic choices

Walk down the aisles at PCC Natural Markets and organic choices thrive in nearly every department, from crackers and cookies, to meats and bulk nuts and flours. More than 95 percent of the produce sold at PCC is certified organic, and supporting the organic supply chain is a key part of PCC's official mission.

Why? The research keeps accumulating that pesticide exposure causes serious harm to our health and the environment.

Pesticides and health

Eating an organic diet reduces our exposure to pesticides. A study in Environmental Health Perspectives, published by the National Institutes of Health, looked at pesticide exposure in elementary school-age children whose diets transitioned to organic from conventional. The researchers found that after 15 days of eating organic, children's pesticide exposure levels dropped to non-detectable levels. The study concludes that an organic diet provides a dramatic and immediate protective effect against exposures to organophosphorus pesticides that are commonly used in agricultural production.

People rarely are exposed to a single pesticide in isolation and being exposed to several pesticides at once can increase health risks. (See whatsonmyfood.org to look up how many pesticides are on common foods.) One recent study published by medical and scientific academic publisher Elselvier, for example, found that exposure to a mix of fungicides, herbicides and insecticides can lead to DNA damage and elevated cell death of blood cells.

A 2011 study in Environmental Health Perspectives found that the widespread decline in male reproductive health may be linked to increased exposure to a combination of pesticides, which have not been tested adequately. Another Environmental Health Perspectives study in 2012 affirmed that the combined effects of widely used pesticides exceed the effects of individual pesticides. There is not nearly enough data on studying the combined effects, even though the average American is exposed to 10 or more pesticides every day, through food and drinking water.

Keep in mind that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) asks companies introducing new chemicals to perform basic tests, then either approves or disapproves the chemical based on industry-supplied data. EPA rarely tests new chemicals.

Instead, the agency often performs computer-modeling studies that estimate what an average person might consume based on assumptions about the residues on food. But EPA does not ever test the exposure levels actually found in consumers.

Pesticides and kids

Children today are sicker, statistically, than they were a generation ago. From childhood cancers to autism, birth defects and asthma, a wide range of childhood diseases and disorders are on the rise.

According to The Organic Center, three new studies confirm that exposures to common insecticides during pregnancy can cut a child's IQ 4 to 7 percent by age 9.

Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA) reviewed dozens of recent studies that examine the impact of pesticides on children's health. Researchers found the body of evidence linking pesticide exposure and childhood health harms is growing quickly, and it's getting stronger.

Pesticides are not the only contributor to the rise in childhood diseases and disorders, but it's clear they are playing an important role:

ADHD: Children who have higher levels of pesticide breakdown in their urine — at levels commonly found in children from residues on fruits and vegetables — are more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD.

Brain: MRI technology has documented changes in the brain structure of infants exposed to the insecticide chlorpyrifos in the womb. Areas of the brain related to attention, language, emotions and control all were affected.

Childhood cancer: Exposure to herbicides and household insecticides during pregnancy can increase risk of childhood leukemia and brain cancer. Kids who grow up in agricultural areas are more likely to have childhood cancers, too.

Asthma: Exposure to pesticides in the first year of life can increase the chances of being diagnosed with asthma by age five.

Read PANNA's entire report, "A generation in jeopardy: how pesticides are undermining our children's health and intelligence" at panna.org/publication/generation-in-jeopardy.

Pesticides and the environment

Recent studies have found that organic pest controls are less energy-intensive and emit fewer greenhouse gases than conventional techniques. This means organic agriculture is contributing to cleaner air and climate change mitigation, according to The Organic Center.

Reducing nitrogen pollution is another way organic farms contribute to both environmental and human health. Nitrogen pollution is responsible for health hazards such as toxic algal blooms, acid rain and smog. Studies have shown that organic farms contribute less nitrogen pollution than conventional farms.

Furthermore, pesticide runoff from non-organic agriculture is the number one polluter of America's waterways.

Organic farms also are better for plant and animal wildlife. A new European study published in the Journal of Applied Ecology found that organic farms are able to support more species than conventional farms. Researchers found that on average, organic farms support 34 percent more plant, insect and animal species than non-organic farms. According to lead author Sean Tuck of Oxford University, "Our study has shown that organic farming, as an alternative to conventional farming, can yield significant long-term benefits for biodiversity."

Creating change

We all can contribute to healthier food and farming with our household choices: Buy organic food. Use natural cleaning products. Don't poison yards with weed killers. But the challenge of eliminating widespread use of pesticides is just too big to shop our way out of it.

An estimated 1.1 billion pounds of pesticides are used in the United States every year, with more than 20,000 products on the market. "While individual household choices can help, protecting kids from the health harms of pesticides requires real and swift policy change," said Emily Marquez, PhD, PANNA report co-author and staff scientist. "Dramatically reducing pesticide use, starting with those most hazardous to children, is the best way to protect current and future generations."

What you can do

Sign up to receive action alerts from Pesticide Action Network North America at panna.org/signup. You'll stay updated on opportunities to speak up for protecting people from pesticides, and you'll be linked to PAN's international network of more than 600 organizations in 90 countries.

Hold leaders accountable: Engage state officials or representatives directly. Hold leaders accountable with phone calls, letters and visits. See sample letters and call scripts at panna.org/hold-leaders-accountable.

Utilize these resources:
panna.org/athome: Tips to control pests without harmful pesticides in your home, on your pets and in your garden.

growsmartgrowsafe.org: An online gardeners' guide that ranks hundreds of garden products by human and environmental health impact.

whatsonmyfood.org: An online database that shows what pesticides USDA found on foods and what health harms they can cause. There's an iPhone app, too!

Pesticide-free places

Did you know King County maintains a list of places that are "pesticide-reduced" or pesticide-free? See the map at Pesticide-FreePlaces.org. It's searchable by zip code, city, place name, or click and drag.

King County has:

240,000 acres of public land (parks, gardens and trails) that are managed using few to no pesticides.

More than 850 individual sites that use no pesticides on lawns or children's play areas.

Pesticide residues on food

Why buy organic? Check out this USDA data about residues found on common non-organic foods. Look up more foods at whatsonmyfood.org.

Food Total number of pesticide residues found Known or probable carcinogens Suspected hormone disruptors Neurotoxins Developmental or reproductive toxins Honeybee toxins
Almonds 9 1 4 3 0 4
Apples 42 7 19 10 6 17
Bananas 12 7 4 2 5 2
Blueberries 52 8 24 14 7 21
Broccoli 33 5 19 6 6 14
Celery 64 13 31 12 14 20
Cherries 14 7 22 7 8 18
Grapes 34 4 17 10 6 14
Green beans 44 8 22 11 8 18
Green kale 55 9 27 10 10 23
Milk 12 5 8 4 4 7
Peaches 62 10 29 12 11 25
Potatoes 37 7 12 9 6 11
Spinach 48 8 25 8 6 23
Strawberries 54 9 24 11 12 19
Tomatoes 35 5 14 6 3 14
Water 59 9 20 7 14 6

Most commonly used pesticides in agriculture — listed by volume of use.

See a complete chart at panna.org/publication/generation-in-jeopardy.

Pesticide and use level range (millions of pounds of active ingredient) Carcinogen? Endocrine disruptor Primary crops Food residues
Glyphosate (180-185) ? Hay/pasture, soybeans, corn No data available
Atrazine (73-78) Yes suspected Corn, sugarcane Spinach, wheat, onions, lettuce, water
Metam-sodium (50-55) Yes Suspected Potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, onions, peanuts No data available
Metolachlor (30-35) Possible Suspected Tomatoes, beans, corn, cotton Oats, celery, water, corn
Acetochlor (28-33) Yes Suspected Corn, popcorn Water
Dichlorpropene (27-32) Yes ? Strawberries, sweet potatoes, tree nuts
2,4-D (25-29) Possible Suspected Grasses, wheat, citrus fruits, tree nuts Potatoes, water
Methyl bromide (11-15) Suspected Tomatoes, strawberries, almonds, peppers, watermelon, cucumbers No data available
Chloropicrin (9-11) ? ? Tobacco, tomatoes, strawberries, bell peppers No data available
Pendimethalin (7-9) Possible Suspected Soybeans, corn, cotton, peanuts Carrots, collard greens, kale
Ethephon (7-9) ? Cotton, walnuts, grapes, tomatoes No data available
Chlorothalonil (7-9) Yes ? Tomatoes, watermelon, onions Cranberries, celery, green beans
Metam potassium (7-9) Yes ? Lettuce, potatoes No data available
Chlorpyrifos (7-9) Suspected Tree nuts, apples, alfalfa, broccoli, citrus, grapes, sweet corn Apples, bell peppers, cranberries, kale, grapes, peaches
Simazine (5-7) Suspected Tree nuts, corn, citrus, grapes Blueberries, kale, water, oranges

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