"Dramatic and Immediate" Protection
From Organic Foods For Kids
Switching to organic foods provides children
"dramatic and immediate" protection from pesticides that are widely
used on a variety of crops, according to a study by a team of
federally funded scientists.
Concentrations of two organophosphate pesticides — malathion
and chlorpyrifos — declined substantially in the bodies
of elementary school-age children during a five-day period when
organic foods were substituted for conventional foods.
The two chemicals are the most commonly used insecticides in U.S.
agriculture. More than 2 million pounds were applied to California
crops in 2003, according to records of the state Department of
The health effects of exposure to minute amounts of pesticides
found in food are largely unknown, especially for children. Some
research, however, suggests that the residue may harm the developing
For 15 days, a team of environmental health scientists from the
University of Washington, Emory University and the Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention tested the urine of 23 elementary
school-age children in the Seattle area.
During the first three days and last seven days, the children
ate their normal foods. But during the middle five days, organic
items were substituted for most of their diet, including fruits,
vegetables, juices and wheat- and corn-based processed items such
as cereal and pasta.
Average levels of both pesticides in the children "decreased to
the nondetect levels immediately after the introduction of organic
diets and remained nondetectable until the conventional diets
were reintroduced," the researchers reported Thursday in the online
version of the scientific journal Environmental Health Perspectives.
When they ate organic foods, the children on average had zero
malathion detected in their urine, with a high of seven parts
per billion in one child. But when the children returned to eating
conventional foods, one child had as much as 263 parts per billion
and the average increased to 1.6 parts per billion.
For chlorpyrifos, the children had less than one part per billion
when they ate organic foods, but the average increased fivefold
as soon as they returned to their previous diet.
The findings suggest that children are exposed to organophosphate
chemicals mainly through food, not through spraying in homes or
other sources. In 2001, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
banned most residential uses of chlorpyrifos but has left most
agricultural uses unrestricted. Three other organophosphate pesticides
that are not widely used on farms and are more highly restricted
by the EPA were undetectable in most of the children, according
to the study, directed by Emory's Chensheng Lu.
"In conclusion," the researchers wrote, "we were able to demonstrate
that an organic diet provides a dramatic and immediate protective
effect against exposure to organophosphorus pesticides that are
commonly used in agricultural production."
Margaret Reeves, a staff scientist at the Pesticide Action Network
North America, based in San Francisco, said the findings were
"not surprising because we know that food is an important source
of [organophosphate] exposure. Also, we know that these
pesticides don't last very long
in the body, and you can
have a relatively quick response" to a diet change.
Pesticide manufacturers say that while low levels of residue are
detectable on many products, there is no evidence that children
are harmed by them. They say that pesticides, which are the most
highly tested and regulated chemicals in the United States, are
vital to providing an affordable and plentiful world food supply.
But Reeves said the children's study "is a pretty strong argument
that [organic food] is a good way to go, if you have access
to it and can afford it."
Organic foods can be expensive and sometimes difficult to find.
But parents can minimize their children's exposure if they substitute
organic products for those that contain the most residue. Experts
advise parents to wash produce and peel skins if they buy conventional
foods, but for foods that cannot be peeled, such as grapes and
strawberries, organic may be a wise choice.
In the late 1990s, U.S. Department of Agriculture data showed
that about 75% of foods sampled from conventionally grown crops
contained pesticide residue, compared with 23% for organic products.
The Consumers Union reported in 2000 that peaches, apples, pears,
grapes, green beans, spinach, winter squash, strawberries and
cantaloupe had the highest levels of pesticide residues. Those
with few residues included bananas, broccoli, canned peaches,
canned or frozen peas, canned or frozen corn, milk, orange juice,
apple juice and grape juice.
Thirty-five percent of peaches sampled by the USDA in 2003 contained
traces of chlorpyrifos, and 26% of the celery in 2002 had malathion
residue, according to the new study.
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