Pesticides are designed to kill, although the mode of action they use to
put the stranglehold on pests varies. Whether it's nerve gas–like
neurological disruption, the unbalancing of key hormones, or the
stunting of a plant's ability to absorb life-sustaining trace minerals
from the soil, none of the chemical interventions seems all that
appetizing, especially considering that chemical residues routinely wind
up on and even inside of the food we eat everyday. Pesticides are also blamed for diminishing mineral levels in foods.
Agrochemical supporters tend to fall back on a "the dose makes the
poison" theory, assuming that small exposures aren't harmful.
Increasingly, though, independent scientists are debunking that belief,
even proving that incredibly tiny doses could set a person up for health
problems later in life. Luckily, eating organic, less processed foods
can cut back on your pesticide exposure.
Here are 9 health problems associated with pesticide-based agrochemicals.
#1: Food Allergies. In one of the strangest links to
pesticides to date, researchers from Albert Einstein College of Medicine
at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City found an association
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 chlorine used to disinfect tap water,
were more likely to suffer allergies to milk, eggs, seafood, and
peanuts. It's not clear what could be happening, says Elina Jerschow,
MD, MSc, lead author of the study, but she says it may have something to
do with the "hygiene hypothesis." 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.
Prevent it: Go GMO free. The USDA is about to approve a
genetically modified (GMO) corn resistant to 2,4-D, one of the main
sources of dichlorophenol in our food supply. If approved, the nonprofit
Center for Food Safety estimates that the use of 2,4-D would quadruple,
exposing millions more people to potentially food-allergy-inducing
pesticide by-products. Buy certified-organic foods and download the True
Food Shoppers Guide to avoid nonorganic foods that might contain GMOs.
#2: Memory Loss. Another review from University College
London recently concluded that low levels of pesticides, such as those
considered safe for farmworkers who are exposed on a daily basis, cause
significant damage to cognitive function—your memory, the speed at which
you process information, and your ability to plan for the long term.
The review used data from 14 different studies and looked at
organophosphate pesticides, which are some of the most harmful chemicals
used in agriculture.
Prevent it: Opt for organic produce. Not only will you
be avoiding memory-killing pesticides, but also eating a diet rich in
fresh fruits and vegetables will ward off memory loss, according to a
study in the American Journal of Epidemiology.
#3: Diabetes. Scientists have been noticing a link
between pesticides and diabetes for years. The latest evidence comes out
of the Endocrine Society's 94th Annual Meeting, where Robert Sargis,
MD, PhD, released the results of a study that suggest tolyfluanid, a
fungicide used on farm crops, creates insulin resistance in fat cells. A
2011 study published in Diabetes Care found that overweight
people with higher levels of organochlorine pesticides in their bodies
also faced a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Prevent it: To save money on organic fare raised
without pesticides, cook with organic dried beans. In the home, avoid
using chemical air fresheners and artificially scented products—these
things are also blamed for inducing type 2 diabetes.
#4: Cancer. More than 260 studies link pesticides to
various cancers, including lymphoma, leukemia, soft tissue sarcoma, and
brain, breast, prostate, bone, bladder, thyroid, colon, liver, and lung
cancers, among others.
Prevent it: The President's Cancer Panel suggests
eating organic and avoiding plastic to lower your risk of
environmentally triggered cancers.
#5: Autism & Other Developmental Diseases. How do
you get autism? The world's leading autism researchers believe the
condition develops from a mix of genes and the pollutants encountered in
the mother's womb and early in life. Many insecticides effectively kill
bugs by throwing off normal neurological functioning. That same thing
appears to be happening in some children. A 2010 Harvard study found
that children with organophosphate pesticide breakdown materials in
their urine were far more likely to live with ADHD than kids without the
trace pesticide residues.
Prevent it: Switching to an organic diet rapidly eliminates pesticide residues in the body.
#6: Obesity. Some agrochemical pesticides act as
hormone disruptors, meaning they act like a fake version of a naturally
occurring hormone in your body, they block important hormone
communication pathways in the body, or they interfere with your body's
ability to regulate the healthy release of hormones. More than 50
pesticides are classified as hormone disruptors, and some of them
promote metabolic syndrome and obesity as they accumulate in your cells,
according to 2012 study appearing in Environmental Health Perspectives.
Prevent it: Food isn't the only place where these
obesogenic chemicals could be lurking. Avoid canned foods and other
foods packaged in plastic. Studies have shown that chemicals, such as
BPA and phthalates, in food packaging could play a role in obesity as
#7: Parkinson's Disease. More than 60 studies show a
connection between pesticides and the neurological disease Parkinson's, a
condition characterized by uncontrolled trembling. The association is
strongest for weed- and bug-killing chemical exposures over a long
period of time, meaning it's important to keep these toxic compounds out
of your household routine.
Prevent it: Don't turn to chemical interventions to kill bugs in your home or garden. Instead, use natural pest control measures.
#8: Infertility. Pesticides spell trouble in the
baby-making department, thanks to their bad habit of not staying put.
For instance, atrazine, a common chemical weed killer used heavily in
the Midwest, on Southern sugar cane farms, and on golf courses, has been
detected in tap water. Doctors and scientists point to published
evidence tying atrazine to increased miscarriage and infertility rates.
Other pesticides cause a plunge in male testosterone levels. A 2006
study found chlorpyrifos, a chemical used in nonorganic apple and sweet
pepper farming, and carbaryl, a go-to pesticide in strawberry fields and
peach orchards, caused abnormally low testosterone levels.
Prevent it: Avoid the worst summer fruit, the kinds
most likely to be laced with toxic pesticides. Instead, choose organic
grapes, strawberries, and imported plums.
#9: Birth Defects. Babies conceived during the spring
and summer months—a time of year when pesticide use is in full
swing—face the highest risk of birth defects. During these months,
higher pesticide levels turn up in surface waters, increasing a mother's
risk of exposure. Spina bifida, cleft lip, clubfoot, and Down syndrome
rates are higher when moms become pregnant during high season for
Prevent it: To protect yourself, use a water filter
that is certified by NSF International to meet American National
Standards Institute Standard 53 for VOC (volatile organic compound)
reduction. This will significantly reduce levels of atrazine and other
pesticides in your tap water.
#10: Alzheimer's Disease. A recent study published in the journal JAMA Neurology found a link between pesticides and alzheimer's.
Researchers specifically found that higher levels of the breakdown
product of the nasty insecticide DDT (DDE) in the blood of people seemed
to fuel the disease. People with higher levels in their bodies were
more likely to be diagnosed with Alzheimer's compared to older people
with lower levels.
This research by no means uncovered a definitive cause of Alzheimer's,
but it's a groundbreaking study that could inspire more research into
the possible environmental factors—specifically chemical pesticides—that
trigger Alzheimer's, a brain disease that currently affects about 5
million people in the United States.
If the findings pan out through
further research, it could mean that testing for DDE levels in the body
could lead to earlier diagnosis, which has been shown to help ease
symptoms of Alzheimer's.
Prevent It: Eat organic as much as possible. Although
banned in the U.S., DDT could still contaminate some imported foods. And
to keep your brain strong, exercise regularly and avoid processed foods
as much as possible.