Organic Food, Pesticides and Brain Development

I’ve often wondered- does eating organic food really make a difference?  And what about all these chemicals that we use as pest control around the home?  Do they really make a difference in our health, particularly our mental health?

Recently, 3 new studies shedding some light on this issue were published online in Environmental Health Perspectives, a journal published by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.  Interestingly, the results of these 3 separate studies that were done by 3 different research groups point in the same direction- that prenatal exposure to organophosphate (OP) pesticides are linked to IQ deficits in school-age children.  Unfortunately for all of us, OP pesticides continue to be used widely on fruit and vegetable crops in the United States.

The University of North Carolina conducted the first study which examined the relationship between OP exposure (dialkyl phosphate), the enzyme that metabolizes this pesticide and cognitive development.  Researchers found that the total prenatal OP level was associated with a decrement in mental development at 12 months in blacks and Hispanics.  This decrement in functioning was particularly notable in perceptual reasoning, and continued throughout early childhood.

The second study, completed by researchers at UC Berkeley, assessed how exposure of the OP pesticide dialkyl phosphate impacts the cognitive abilities of children.  Researchers found that seven-year-old children with the highest levels of prenatal OP exposure had an average deficit of 7.0 IQ-points when compared to those who had the lowest prenatal OP exposure.

Finally, in the third study, investigators from Columbia University looked at the effect of prenatal exposure to chlorpyrifos (CPF), a pesticide used to kill cockroaches and other pests.  This study found that prenatal exposure was linked IQ and working memory deficits.  Even though this pesticide has been banned for use in the home it is still used to spray food crops.

So what do I conclude from all of this?

  1. Pesticides are certainly harmful to the developing brain, particularly when the brain is exposed to them before birth.
  2. Women who may become pregnant need to be extremely careful on the amount of pesticides that they may be consuming in food or using in the home.  Although it is impossible to have zero exposure to pesticides, the less the better.
  3. These studies tell me that pesticides do, in fact, impact the brain.  In these studies, we see these results quite clearly in the most vulnerable (the unborn).  Although these findings are related to prenatal exposure (exposure before birth) to pesticides, these pesticides also have a negative impact on the brain function and mental health of anyone exposed.  Other studies are already showing the link between exposure to OP pesticides and depression, and this may only be the tip of the iceberg.

Maybe paying a little more for organic isn’t such a bad idea after all!