Recently published human health studies link prenatal exposure to pesticides with learning problems in children. Turns out that these commonly used agricultural pesticides, designed to act like brain poisons, really do their job, and not only on insects! Specifically, a family of chemicals called organophosphates has links to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and lower IQs in children, syndromes with life-long ramifications. Children suffer these effects long after birth, too. Those with above-average levels of the pesticides in their urine have been found to be twice as likely to have a diagnosis of ADHD, for example.
The findings (and those associated with other chemical assaults on our kids' brains) are laid out brilliantly in "Mind Games," a feature piece in a recent edition of Orion magazine by biologist, author, and mother Sandra Steingraber, whose new book Raising Elijah came out this March, and who has a rare knack for making dry research data come to life. After reading it, I could not dispute her statement that "If organophosphate pesticides are damaging children's brains at background levels of exposure and above, they should be abolished."
Think of the enormous amount of fossil fuels that the agri-chemical industry uses to synthesize chemicals like organophosphates, which in turn irreparably harm the developing brains of our next generations. All because our farms are so huge—in seeking those economies of scale—that sustainable pest management techniques cost too much. Which really begs the question of what kinds of costs ought to be borne, and which ones ought not.
Until these chemicals are indeed abolished for their long-ranging effects on human health and the environment, the main way to protect yourself and your kids is by buying organic food. As Organic Valley's "Why Organic" page states, "An organic diet provides a dramatic and immediate protective effect against exposures to organophosphorus pesticides." This rapid decrease in the levels of such chemicals in kids' bodies, just by eating different food, is a very hopeful fact.
But it would be unwise to halt our remedial action at the point of food consumption. In order to see the end of these chemicals, a grassroots movement to pressure the government will be needed. The EPA, after absorbing the findings of the studies, responded weakly that its work to date has phased out a limited number of organophosphate pesticides. Which means that millions of pounds of these toxins remain in regular use annually on U.S. farms!
Sorry, that's just not good enough. As Steingraber expressed in an email to me this week:
"At what point do we parents rise up and say, 'Enough is enough. Like cigarette smoke in public places, pesticide residues in food represent, for our children, acts of reckless endangerment.' Like seatbelts, sobriety, and smoke-free buildings, organic agriculture needs to become the new normal way of growing food. Parents are perfectly poised to lead that charge."
I invite you to consider the moving thesis of Steingraber's Orion article and decide for yourself what role parents can play in this debate, and what future, if any, agricultural shortcuts like organophosphate pesticides should have in a society that loves its kids.
Erik Hoffner is a photojournalist, fine art photographer, and a writer for Grist.org, the biggest green news site in the U.S. By day he's Outreach Coordinator for the award-winning journal of nature/culture/place, Orion, based in Western Massachusetts. See more of his work at www.erikhoffner.com.