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Persistent, Poisonous, Problematic: Pesticides

by Melinda Hemmelgarn, M.S., R.D.

Shortly after Michelle Obama planted an organic garden on the White House lawn, she received a letter from the Mid-America Crop Life Association. (1)

The letter reminded the First Lady that "crop protection technologies" (Read: pesticides) are "supported by sound scientific research and innovation," and are important in "feeding our country."

Whoa! This sounded like pesticide PR to me.  Sure enough, the Association's officers and board members include individuals from Monsanto, Bayer, Dupont and Syngenta – agro-chemical corporations who profit from pesticide sales.(2)

Cause for concern

Of course, Mrs. Obama knows better. Let's stand with her to help more parents understand the unintended consequences of pesticide use, and how these chemicals could harm our families' health.

The Pesticide Action Network of North America defines pesticides as "chemicals designed to kill plants, insects, rodents, fungi, etc." However, PANNA adds: "due to their very nature, they can be hazardous to human health and the environment. "(3)

Pesticides that destroy unwanted pests can also kill pollinators and other beneficial insects, pollute rivers and streams, and create hazardous environments for wildlife and humans.


Little ones: Big impact

Pregnant women, infants and children are especially vulnerable to pesticides' effects. Compared to adults, children eat more, drink more, and breathe more air in proportion to their body size. Plus, young, developing bodies are less able to break down and excrete toxins.(3-7)

Overall, human health risks associated with pesticide exposure include: asthma, autism, birth defects, cancers, diabetes, insulin resistance, mental retardation, neurological disorders, and obesity. (3-8)

Evils of Endocrine Disruption

Some pesticides mimic our natural hormones and can interfere with normal sexual development, reproduction and fertility. Exposure to these endocrine disruptors contributes to declining worldwide rates in fertility, sperm counts and male offspring. Some studies show that organic farmers and men who eat only organic food have healthier sperm and /or higher sperm counts as compared to conventional farmers who use pesticides and eat conventional diets. Endocrine disrupting pesticides have also been linked to fetal loss, birth defects, and earlier onset of puberty among girls (menarche). (8)

Even when pesticide residues are present at levels lower than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's stated "level of concern," endocrine disruptors pose human health risk because they are biologically active at extremely low and previously undetected levels.

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Fast Facts

  • More than one billion pounds of pesticides are used annually in the U.S. (5)
  • Public health costs associated with pesticide-related acute poisonings and cancer alone, add up to an estimated $1.1 billion dollars per year.(4)
  • About 70 percent of conventionally grown fresh fruits and vegetables contain pesticide residues.(5)
  • 82 percent of U.S. households use pesticides, with an average of 3-4 different pesticide products used per home.(6)
  • The majority of the U.S. population has detectable concentrations of multiple pesticide residues in their bodies.(7)
  • Switching children to organic food dramatically reduces their pesticide exposure and risk. (4)(18)
  • Pesticides approved for organic farming are much less toxic compared to conventional pesticides.(18)
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