Organic Diet Cuts Kids' Food Pesticide Levels

Results Seen in Small Study's Before-and-After Organic Diet Makeover

Sept. 30, 2005 -- Eating an organic diet reduces kids' exposure to pesticides from foods, new research shows.

The effect was "dramatic and immediate," write Chensheng "Alex" Lu, PhD, MS, and colleagues. Lu is an assistant professor in the environmental and occupational health department of Emory University's Rollins School of Public Health in Atlanta.

Lu's team studied malathion and chlorpyrifos, two pesticides commonly used in conventional agricultural production. Organic foods aren't treated with any synthetic pesticides. Pesticides derived from natural sources (e.g. biological pesticides) may be used in producing organically grown food, says the EPA.

The study, which was funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), recently appeared in the online edition of Environmental Health Perspectives.

Strict Standards for Safety

Pesticides are strong chemicals. According to the EPA web site, "By their very nature, most pesticides create some risk of harm. Pesticides can cause harm to humans, animals, or the environment because they are designed to kill or otherwise adversely affect living organisms. At the same time, pesticides are useful to society. Pesticides can kill potential disease-causing organisms and control insects, weeds, and other pests."

Direct exposure to the type of pesticides studied by Lu can overstimulate the nervous system, causing nausea, dizziness, and confusion. Very high exposures (such as accidents or major spills), can paralyze breathing or even be fatal, states the EPA's web site.

But foods treated with malathion and chlorpyrifos are safe to eat, according to the EPA.

The EPA has strict rules about pesticide use. Limits include the amount of pesticides that can be used in growing and processing foods and the amount of pesticide residue on foods people buy.

"Most importantly, each of these decisions must protect infants and children, whose developing bodies may be especially sensitive to pesticide exposure," states the EPA's web site.

According to the EPA web site, children are at a greater risk for some pesticides for a number of reasons. Children's internal organs are still developing and maturing, and their enzymatic, metabolic, and immune systems may provide less natural protection than those of an adult. There are "critical periods" in human development when exposure to a toxin can permanently alter the way an individual's biological system operates. Children may be exposed more to certain pesticides because often they eat different foods than adults.

For instance, children typically consume larger quantities of milk, applesauce, and orange juice per pound of body weight than do adults. Children's behaviors, such as playing on the floor or on the lawn where pesticides are commonly applied, or putting objects in their mouths, increase their chances of exposure to pesticides.

Organic Makeover

Lu's study included 23 children aged 3 to 11 in Seattle's suburbs. The kids took daily urine tests for about two weeks. The urine samples were checked for traces of the two pesticides.

The kids ate their normal diets for three days. Then, they switched to a mainly organic diet for five days. Lastly, the children resumed their normal conventional diet.

The researchers bought the organic foods at a local store. They simply chose organic versions of foods the kids typically ate.

The organic grocery list included fresh fruits and vegetables, juices, processed fruit or vegetable items (such as salsa), and wheat- or corn-based items (such as pasta, cereal, popcorn, or chips).

Organic meats and dairy products weren't provided since they aren't regularly found to contain the type of pesticides being studied, the researchers note.

Pesticide Levels Dropped

When the kids started eating the organic foods, traces of the two pesticides immediately vanished from most of their urine samples. Those pesticide levels remained undetectable until the children resumed their conventional diets, the study shows.

The researchers didn't probe or note any health problems in the kids on either diet.

The kids' parents had told the researchers that they didn't use pesticides in their homes. That suggests that the children were "exclusively" exposed to the pesticides from food, write Lu and colleagues.

Lowering Pesticide Exposure

The EPA offers these tips to reduce consumption of pesticides on foods:

  • Wash and scrub all fresh fruits and vegetables under running water.
  • Soaking produce isn't the same. It doesn't have the abrasive effect of running water.
  • Peel fruits and vegetables, when possible.
  • Discard the outer leaves of leafy vegetables.
  • Trim fat from meat and skin from poultry. Some pesticide residues collect in fat.
  • Eat a variety of foods from a variety of sources. Doing so will provide a better mix of nutrients and reduce the likelihood of exposure to a single pesticide.

Not all pesticide residues can be removed by washing.

Washing produce (including fresh organic fruits and vegetables) will also help reduce dirt and bacteria. Don't use detergent or soaps to wash produce, notes the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Show Sources

SOURCES: Lu, C. Environmental Health Perspectives, online edition, Sept. 1, 2005. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: "Organophosphate Pesticide Information: Malathion Risk Assessment 2000 Summary." U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: "Organophosphate Pesticide Information: Chlorpyrifos Summary." U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: "Organophosphate Pesticide Information: Chlorpyrifos Revised Risk Assessment and Risk Mitigation Measures." U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: "Pesticides and Food: How the Government Regulates Pesticides." U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: "Pesticides and Food: Healthy, Sensible Food Practices." U.S. Department of Agriculture: "Fact Sheets: Safe Food Handling -- Does Washing Food Promote Food Safety?" News release, Emory University.
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