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With greater awareness about the importance of organic and non-GMO foods, including the hazards of pesticide exposure, concerned parents have to take steps to prevent and reverse declining cognitive abilities and other health hazards attributed to organophosphate pesticide exposure.

In 2011, sutdies carried out independently in California and New York monitored neurological development and cognitive effects in children with prenatal exposure to organophosphate (OP) insecticides. The studies involved groups of pregnant women whose health condition and exposure to OP pesticides were monitored during pregnancy and at the time of childbirth. Their children were then monitored longitudinally for IQ and other cognitive variables. Researchers at Columbia University Center for Children’s Environmental Health focused on children born to a group of 265 mothers living in low-income, public housing. By age seven, children born to mothers in the highest exposure group scored 5.5% lower on a common test of working memory and 2.7% lower in terms of IQ, compared to children born to mothers in the low-exposure group.

Prior studies linked pesticide exposure in the womb to children’s motor skills and intellectual functioning. The research team also reported that about 25% of pregnant women in the general population are exposed to OP insecticides at levels comparable to the average Latino women included in this study.

A more recent study conducted in Canada, at the Child and Family Research Institute in B.C., found that prenatal exposure to organophosphate pesticides was associated with shortened gestation and reduced birth weight.

Children have also been found to experience chronic low level exposure to pesticides when living near agricultural fields. Conventionally grown food and fiber crops, such as cotton, continue to be a common source of hazardous environmental pesticide exposure, witha majority of occurrences in low income populations and developing countries.

An EPA report in 2001 showed that exposure levels were highest in people living in urban structures treated with pesticides and that exposures in living spaces, especially bedrooms and nurseries, were posing unacceptable developmental risks for infants and children. Children may also be exposed in schools, day care centers as well as homes sprayed with these pesticides.

Exposure can occur on playgrounds and school lawns. As early as 1998, the Environmental Working Group suggested a ban on all home and building use of OP pesticides, as well as a ban on OP use on commodities that end up in baby food.

Even at relatively low levels, organophosphates may be extremely hazardous to human health. Researchers point to the higher risks in children, whose delicate nervous systems are more susceptible to the neurotoxicants in the pesticides, especially because the pesticides act on a set of brain chemicals closely related to those involved in ADHD. Fetuses and young children, where brain development depends on a strict sequence of biological events, may be most at risk.

Organophosphates can be absorbed through the lungs or skin or by eating them in food. Exposure can also occur due to hand to mouth contact with surfaces containing the OP pesticides.

OP Pesticides in Food

A 2007 study linked the organophosphate insecticide chlorpyrifos, which is used on some fruits and vegetables, with delays in learning rates, reduced physical coordination, and behavioural problems in children, especially ADHD. Researchers have suggested that a change to organic diet may eliminate the major ongoing source of exposure to OP insecticides, which would be appropriate for children for whom the main source of such exposure is through their nonorganic diet. According to a report by the Environmental Working Group, at last 1 million children, age 5 and under, consume unsafe levels of a class of pesticides daily, which can harm the developing brain and nervous system. Peaches, apples, pears, and grapes are the most common sources of exposure to unsafe levels of these pesticides for infants, young children, and pregnant women. Children should be able to eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables withou worrying about risking brain damage, nerve damage, or declining cognitive functions.

Even with natural detoxification treatments, residues may remain in the brain and on the cellular level.

Pesticide issues in the U.S. can directly affect mothers, infants and children in Canada. According to Statistics Canada, nearly 60% of our food imports come from the U.S., the vast majority of which are fruits and vegetables. It is therefore reasonable to suggest that a large percentage of pesticide residues are imported, especially because the standards set by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Develoment (OECD) regarding the maximum residue limits for pesticides in food are the same for Canadian-grown and U.S-grown fruit and vegetables.


Environmental organizations in Canada may be helpful in addressing the legislative needs necessary to end harmful agricultural and environmental use of OP pesticides. Widespread implementation of sustainable and integrated pest management techniques may also be helpful in eliminating the cause of the problem. One example is the national strategy announced by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada to reduce the risks of using organophosphate pesticides in pome fruit orchards, by increasing the use of beneficial pest management practices.

Choosing certified organic food and avoiding OP pesticide contact in agricultural fields and the environment is a necessary step to preventing organophosphate exposure in infants, children and mothers. Environmental action to eliminate the cause, as well as further research to remedy the harmful effects, may be prudent to protect our health and the environment.

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