Pesticides Are Dumbing Down Our Kids

A trio of studies link prenatal pesticide exposure to lower IQ scores and developmental problems.

May 3, 2011

Protecting kids from pesticides, even before they're born, could translate to better performance in school.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Children born to mothers with higher levels of pesticides in their body during pregnancy go on to experience lower IQ scores in elementary school, according to three recent independent reports from different research institutions. These studies out of Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, University of California–Berkeley School of Public Health, and the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University add credence to a growing body of research linking childhood developmental problems to everyday chemicals in the environment.


THE DETAILS: The studies, which will appear in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, all linked a particular class of pesticides known as organophosphates—common bug killers—to IQ deficits in children. Collectively, the studies included about 800 women who lived in different parts of the country, including both agricultural and urban settings.

Researchers at Berkeley and Mount Sinai tested the pregnant mothers' urine for organophosphate pesticide breakdown components, while Columbia experts tested umbilical cord blood for a common pesticide called chlorpyrifos. (Chlorpyrifos has turned up on nonorganic apples, kale, bell peppers, and other produce, and scientists are investigating its possible ties to autism.) Researchers then followed up with elementary school–age children years after testing their mothers and found that the prenatal pesticide exposure was associated with negative effects on cognitive function. One study found a 7-point reduction in IQ in children whose mothers had harbored the highest levels of pesticides, versus the group with the lowest levels of pesticides.

WHAT IT MEANS: This trio of studies finding pesticides messing with kids' health is just the latest in a slew of research suggesting that chemical weedkillers and bug sprays don't just harm the pests, but kids, too. The damage likely doesn't end there, either. Many pesticides are believed to be hormone disruptors, and prenatal exposure could set people up for chronic diseases like diabetes, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, and obesity. Oftentimes, these ailments only surface later in life.

Some problems appear to be cropping up in childhood, too, though, as the latest three studies suggest. And last year, Harvard researchers released a study showing a connection between ingesting levels of pesticides commonly found in nonorganic food and ADHD.

Emerging research is finding that the timing of prenatal exposure to toxic chemicals matters, as well. This likely has something to do with the pivotal times in a pregnancy during which intricate systems are developing. For instance, a Penn State researcher released new data this week showing that prenatal BPA exposure was linked to wheezing babies. Like chemical pesticides, BPA is a chemical that public health experts are very concerned about. BPA leaches from most metal food cans, and is found in some No. 7 plastic bottles and serving ware.

Here's a three-pronged attack to keep pesticides out of your body:

• Be a budget organic buyer. Farmer's market season is just around the corner. If you're trying to stretch your food budget (who isn't?), restrain yourself from buying local, organic produce the first week it turns up at the market, and you can pay less for it in following weeks. Stock up when prices are low, and preserve the extra for the biggest savings. For more tips, read A Guide to Eating Healthy on the Cheap.

• Beat back pests naturally. There's a natural pest solution to virtually every bug problem, and many such approaches are outlined in How to Beat Back Household Bugs, Part I and Part II.

• Get a great, green lawn. Spring is here, and while that great American green lawn is on many parents' minds, it's best to sidestep the chemical lawn services. Some of the pesticides used have been linked to the most common form of childhood cancer, so it's best to trade in chemical treatments for nontoxic ones. Tap Organic Magazine's free Organic Lawn Problem Solver tool for tips on keeping your yard looking great in safe ways.

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