The scientists measured exposure to organophosphates in pregnant women and their children until the children reached the age of five. The researchers then checked the children’s lung function when they were age seven, and found that the children had decreased lung function. It is unclear whether there were longer-term effects, since there was no further study.
The children studied lived close to conventional farming, but the researchers say that children who live far from agricultural farming may be at risk, too, since they can be exposed to organophosphate residues on foods they eat. Brenda Eskenazi, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who was instrumental in this study, points out, “Remember these kids aren’t farmworkers. We know that this population is somewhat more exposed than the general U.S. population, but what we’re seeing from children in these areas may also have implications for residue in food.”
While the use of organophosphate pesticides has been under more scrutiny in recent years due to repeated reports of high levels poisoning agricultural workers, their use still exists in a restricted form, since, in 2001, the EPA placed restrictions on their residential use. Despite those residential-use restrictions, however, the overall use of organophosphates has increased.
Unfortunately, the pesticides have been implicated in the deaths of at least 25 children (aged four to 12) in India who, after apparently eating foods that had suspected high levels of organophosphates, died—some within hours of eating the foods.
Dana Boyd Barr, an exposure scientist at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, has studied organophosphate poisoning, and says, “They’re [organophosphates] considered junior-strength nerve agents because they have the same mechanism of action as nerve gases like sarin.”
Here’s what happens when organophosphates enter the body—through ingestion, inhalation or skin contact. They inhibit an enzyme (cholinesterase) in the human nervous system that breaks down acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter which carries signals between nerves and muscles. This starts a biological process that leads to a form of paralysis, causing a person to suffocate.
In short, victims of high-level exposure organophosphate poisoning often die because they can’t breathe.
However, this newer study and other studies about decreased lung function suggest that chronic low-level exposure to organophosphates may have health consequences, particularly for infants and young children. Why infants and young children? Dosage. Lethal dosages and other risk dosages are based on the weight of what or who is given the substance. Adults weigh more, so they are not as susceptible to unhealthy consequences as are infants and children, who typically have a lower body weight than adults do and whose breathing occurs closer to the ground where organophosphates have been applied.
Dr. Boyd Barr, mentioned earlier, has studied organophosphate exposure. In 2010, he found that children living in agricultural regions of California who had prenatal and early childhood exposure to organophosphates had increased risks of neurological disorders such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Barr states, “This chronic, low-level exposure that we all might be exposed to [which is considered safe in the U.S.] could functionally decrease the neurological capacity of children.”
Jay Feldman, executive director of the non-profit advocacy group Beyond Pesticides, points out that the U.S. and many other countries are good at evaluating health risks of short-term exposure to pesticides, including organophosphates, but not the potential dangers of chronic exposure. He says, “The focus tends to be on acute exposure. For chemicals whose risks are aggregated as a result of ongoing exposure . . . that is not adequately tested by regulators anywhere in the world.” That should change, but may not anytime soon.
In the meantime, be sure to avoid organophosphates and other pesticides by choosing Certified USDA Organic food and products because those chemicals and others aren’t allowed on organic goods.
This information is intended for educational and informational purposes only. It should not be used in place of an individual consultation or examination or replace the advice of your health care professional and should not be relied upon to determine diagnosis or course of treatment.