Health Hazards Of Pesticides

Health Hazards Of Pesticides

Food has changed from what our ancestors ate since the industrial revolution brought factories and modern technology gave us modern innovations in food production.

The typical meal in the 1800s included green beans, carrots, potatoes, and roast beef or chicken fresh from the farm without anything added accompanied by homemade biscuits made fresh using flour, butter, milk, and nothing else. Dessert would be home-baked using fresh fruit and all-natural ingredients.

Today, we have shelves full of Twinkies, bread, chips, canned vegetables, fruits, sauces, jams, jellies, desserts, ice cream, and many products that required additives to not only increase shelf life but also to thicken, flavor, add nutrients and more.

In fact, there are thousands of ingredients; the FDA has a running list of 3000 ingredients used to make a lot of the food you find at the supermarket.

Consumers are concerned about what is in their food, especially when they find long lists of unpronounceable ingredients on food labels.

Pesticides used in conventional farming are also of growing concern to consumers and parents as these chemicals are ingested with the produce, meat, and dairy where they are found. A Consumer Reports survey found that 85% of more than 1,000 people have these concerns.

Pesticides are used on just about every commercially produced fruits and vegetables throughout the world. Pesticides are designed to eliminate the effects of bugs and other pests that can damage the crop, causing produce that is partially eaten-through by pests or are simply unappealing to eat.

A pesticide is designed to prevent the action of pests, destroy pests, or repel pests. While pesticides are generally considered to be simply insecticides, they can actually consist of herbicides or fungicides that help to control the activity of pests on produce.

Pests are considered to be any living thing that is not wanted and that causes damage to crops or animals used for foods.

These include:

  • Mice or related animals
  • Insects
  • Weeds
  • Fungal organisms
  • Bacteria or viruses
  • Prions, which are small proteins that affect the DNA of other living beings. They are smaller than viruses and cause diseases like Jakob-Creutzfeldt disease and mad cow disease

Pesticides are contained in many household products, many of which are not healthy to consume. They include:

  • Insect repellents
  • Cockroach sprays
  • Flea and tick sprays
  • Rat poisons
  • Products that kill mold and mildew
  • Weed killers

Pesticides can be beneficial to us by killing disease-causing organisms and by controlling the insect and weed population. Because they are designed to kill living organisms, they carry a risk to humans, especially when consumed on food products that have been sprayed with the various pesticides on the market.

Because they are dangerous for human consumption, researchers have come up with biological pesticides that include microbes that kill only pests and pheromones that repel pests. These types of pesticides are in increasing use and are considered much safer than chemically based pesticides.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are 29 pesticides in the average American human body.

The Environmental Protection Agency registers pesticides and decides on their safety. Some pesticides are not registered, such as fertilizers and plant nutrients, drugs used to manage diseases of livestock and pests, low-risk pesticides like mint oil and garlic, and predators like ladybugs and birds that eat insects.

Human Health Effects of Pesticides

Because pesticides are made to kill off living organisms, humans are not exempt from having an effect when exposed to pesticides. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that approximately 3 million people suffer from some form of pesticide poisoning each year, causing about 220,000 deaths. Most of the poisoning occurs in developing countries where pesticides are not regulated as to safety. Some produce comes to the US from developing countries, so Americans are not totally exempt from exposure to toxic pesticides. Children are especially susceptible to the dangers of pesticides and can get sick with even low-level exposure to these chemicals.

Symptoms of Pesticide Exposure

Pesticide exposure can lead to very subtle symptoms that include a loss of memory, reduced responsiveness to stimuli, a lack of coordination, mood instability, behavioral problems, and visual difficulties. Some people are especially sensitive to pesticides and develop allergies, asthma, and other hypersensitivity symptoms. Certain pesticides have been linked to reproductive difficulties, abnormalities in fetal development, cancer, and hormonal interference.

Organochlorine-Mediated Insecticides

Insecticides like organochlorine-mediated insecticides have the ability to cause unusual sensations around the mouth, dizziness, light, and sound hypersensitivity, nausea, vomiting, confusion, tremors, and nervousness. This is usually related to the large ingestion of these insecticides or a high degree of exposure such as farm workers and those who make them.


Organophosphates are common insecticides. Exposure to these types of insecticides can cause symptoms related to excessive acetylcholine in the system, which causes low blood pressure, pupillary constriction, increased salivation, excessive perspiration, nausea, diarrhea, fatigue, and muscle weakness.


Pyrethroids were made to replace the more dangerous organophosphates. Ingestion of pyrethroids, however, can cause aggressive behavior, seizures, excitability, incoordination, and tremors. These symptoms are more likely in workers who absorb the Pyrethroids in the skin. Allergies to Pyrethroids can also occur.

Research On Pesticide And Human Health

Many experts believe that Americans have a greater exposure to pesticides than has been found through research. One of the greatest obstacles is that there is no effective overall system between manufacturers and health officials for testing the safety of chemicals and pesticides in humans before they are released for use. The CDC is investigating the risk to humans by pesticides but there is a great deal of work left to do in order to understand the effects that pesticides have on humans.

Highest Risk For Children

There has been some research done on children with pesticide exposure. There have been studies on organophosphate compounds and their neurotoxicity in children. Children are exposed to pesticides containing organophosphates when eating unwashed fruits and vegetables. In the research, children exposed to high levels of organophosphates were found to have an impairment in intelligence and neurological conditions.

According to Consumer Reports, the highest risk of pesticide exposure aside from farmworkers is for children. Since a child’s metabolism is less developed than an adult’s, toxins remain longer in their bodies and so can do more damage.

Exposure to pesticides can affect a child’s development as early as in the womb where organs and the nervous system is still developing says Dr. Philip Landrigan, director of the Children’s Environmental Health Center at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital, New York. The risk in children is further magnified because they eat more food in a ratio to their body weight than adults do.

The health effects of pesticide exposure in kids are significant where even small amounts can negatively affect their brain chemistry during critical stages of the development process.

Human Studies On Kids And Pesticides

Studies have been done on the long-term effects of pesticides in children, particularly organophosphate exposure. Organophosphates seem to have a negative effect on the nervous system by being antagonists of acetylcholinesterase, which is an enzyme that controls the firing of nerve cells. This causes depression of the nervous system, which can affect the brain development of children.

There were three major studies on organophosphates that linked maternal exposure to organophosphates in pregnancy and learning/memory activity in their children. According to these studies:

  • There were decreases in IQ and memory in seven-year-old kids exposed in utero to clorpyrifos, an organophosphate pesticide. It has since been banned for residential use by the EPA. Exposure continues, however, in kids who eat contaminated produce. This study was done at Columbia University.
  • A study of 8 to 15-year-olds reported that subjects with the highest urinary levels of a marker for exposure to organophosphates had twice the odds of developing attention deficit hyperactivity disorder as compared to those who had no detectable levels.
  • A study out of the Mount Sinai Medical Center showed that prenatal organophosphate exposure in kids caused perceptual reasoning deficits.
  • A study out of the University of California, Berkeley, showed that children born by women in a Latino farm community who had elevated levels of organophosphate exposure suffered from lower IQs when compared to women who did not have high levels of pesticide exposure.

Another study linked organophosphate exposure to ADHD. Kids are exposed to organophosphates through eating traditional produce, and while washing helps, it is not as effective as buying organic produce. The reason for this is that many fruits and vegetables do not have skin that protects the inside of the produce, and in others, the skin is too thin to offer adequate protein such as the case with tomatoes. Children do not process organophosphates as well as adults and are thus more sensitive.

Pesticides can be detected in the bodies of humans. The CDC monitors pesticide levels in humans and has detected observable levels of pesticides in the blood and urine of 96 percent of people studied. There are about twenty-eight known pesticides used in fruit and vegetable growing that can be detected in humans. According to the CDC and the EPA, 60% of us will test positive for at least seven known pesticides.

Pesticide contamination can be reduced by eating only organic food and by washing carefully all produce purchased from the supermarket. These foods often have not been washed and contain pesticide residue that must be washed off prior to eating the food.

Lack Of Data

Overall, there is an extreme lack of data on the effects of pesticides on human health. The government has not done adequate studies and the pesticide industry has not done adequate studies. The lack of data showing danger to humans because of pesticides does not mean that such danger doesn’t exist.

Most of the research done on pesticides has been done on pesticide workers and shows that pesticides do have a harmful effect on those who work with pesticides. Research on laboratory animals has shown the toxicity of pesticides. Research on pesticide intake in the diet is difficult to do because people have different diets and different produce washing practices so that population data are difficult to ascertain.

The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a significant finding in 2012 that advised of children’s unique vulnerabilities to pesticides found on food and their potential toxicity.

It cited various research studies that linked pesticide exposures in early life to decreased cognitive function, pediatric cancers, and various behavioral problems.

It further advised members to advise the parents of their young patients to consult reliable sources of information in regards to pesticide residue concentrations on specific vegetables and fruits in order to make wise shopping choices.

The report recommended the Environmental Working Group’s™ Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce™ as a reliable and key source of information on the topic.

Photo by Ibadah Mimpi on Unsplash

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