March 2010 Issue

Perilous Pesticides — Teach Parents Why and How to Protect Their Kids
By Melinda Hemmelgarn, MS, RD
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 12 No. 3 P. 16

When talking about maternal and child health and preventing obesity or chronic disease, dietitians tend to focus largely on diet and exercise because these are the elements we know best. However, it’s time to expand our horizons and include the environment in our discussions.

Pregnant women, breast-feeding infants, and children are some of the most vulnerable population segments. In fact, Sandra Steingraber, a biologist and author of Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood, says genetics, lifestyle, and environment make up a triangle of risk factors for chronic diseases, such as cancer. In a recent interview, she placed breast-feeding infants “at the top of the food chain”1 since they feed from mothers and receive nutrients and accumulated toxins from maternal environmental exposures.

While developing bodies certainly need ideal nourishment and physical activity, they also face the greatest risk from environmental toxins such as pesticides. The fetus, for example, is vulnerable to toxins that cross the placenta and can trigger epigenetic changes. Infants’ and children’s immature organ systems are less able to break down and excrete toxic compounds; plus, they eat and drink more in proportion to their body size.2-4

Pesticide Nation
According to USDA data, more than 1 billion pounds of pesticides are used annually in the United States, and more than 70% of the conventionally grown fresh fruits and vegetables most frequently consumed by infants and children contain one or more pesticide residues.5

Chuck Benbrook, chief scientist at The Organic Center, recently analyzed USDA pesticide use data since the advent of genetically modified crops. In his report “Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use: The First Thirteen Years,” Benbrook reports that “compared to pesticide use in the absence of GE [genetically engineered] crops, farmers applied 318 million more pounds of pesticides over the last 13 years as a result of planting GE seeds.”

Genetically modified seeds increase pesticide use in large part due to herbicide-resistant weeds.

Proceed With Caution
Human health risks associated with pesticide exposure include spontaneous abortion, birth defects, impaired male sexual organ development and fertility, asthma, neurological and immune disorders, autism, hyperactivity and behavioral disorders, learning disabilities, cancer, insulin resistance, diabetes, and obesity.4,5

Endocrine-disrupting pesticides mimic our natural hormones and can interfere with normal sexual development, reproduction, and fertility, including early onset of puberty among girls.6

Frederick vom Saal, a biology professor at the University of Missouri and an internationally known expert on endocrine disruptors, discovered that these compounds are “biologically active at extremely low and previously undetected levels.” In addition, researchers don’t yet understand how pesticides may interact with each other and impact human health. We might think of our exposure as a chemical cocktail of sorts, with our bodies exposed to and harboring detectable levels of hundreds of different contaminants, including flame retardants, plasticizers, and pesticide residues.

Beware of ad-man speak—the warm, fuzzy terminology and images that mask potentially dangerous compounds. For example, in Will Allen’s historical account of pesticide promotion, The War on Bugs, we learn that Dr. Seuss was hired to create cartoons used in pesticide ads. Today, manufacturers typically use the term crop protection to describe pesticides’ purpose. However, Pesticide Action Network North America cuts to the chase, defining pesticides as “chemicals designed to kill plants, insects, rodents, fungi, etc.” The action network adds that “due to their very nature, they can be hazardous to human health and the environment.”

Here Today, Here Tomorrow
Unfortunately, once pesticides are released into the environment, they can last for generations, creating both additive and synergistic effects with yet unknown consequences. For example, the most recent U.S. Geological Survey of pesticides in our nation’s streams and groundwater found organochlorine pesticides such as DDT in fish and streambed sediment, even though most of this type of pesticide had not been used in the United States for numerous years prior to testing.

Try to Get Five a Day the Organic Way
The National Research Council reports that dietary intake represents the major source of pesticide exposure for infants and children. Researchers at Emory University and the University of Washington indicate that switching children to an organic diet provides a “dramatic and immediate protective effect” against exposure to potentially harmful pesticides. For vulnerable populations in particular, dietitians are wise to recommend organic diets.

Organic agriculture does not ban the use of pesticides. However, the pesticide products approved for use are much less toxic compared with conventional products.7

Knowledge + Action = Advocacy
Dietitians have an important role to play in protecting public health by educating people about pesticides and crafting safe food policy. We can help our clients extend their understanding of food safety beyond bacteria to include risks from pesticide contamination.

The following suggestions and resources can help us stay involved and informed on pesticide research and policy:

• Speak to farmers at your local market about their growing techniques. Let your food dollars speak in favor of local, organic food—the gold standard.

• Talk to your children’s school principal and school board members about pesticide policy within your school district. Work with the PTA to eliminate the use of harmful pesticides on or near school grounds and advocate for an organic school garden and organic food in the school cafeteria.

• Avoid using bug sprays and lawn chemicals at home.

• Ask grocers and restaurant owners to offer more seasonal, local organic produce, dairy, and meats.

• Read Rachel Carson’s classic book Silent Spring or watch the film about her life: A Sense of Wonder (

— Melinda Hemmelgarn, MS, RD, is a freelance writer, speaker, and radio host. She is a former Food and Society Policy Fellow and serves on the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service Board.


• Environmental Health Perspectives ( This is one of the best sources for tracking peer-reviewed environmental chemical research.

• Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy ( “Smart Guides” on food, health, and agriculture provide risk-reducing strategies.

• Our Stolen Future ( Keep up with research on endocrine-disrupting compounds.

• Pesticide Action Network North America ( “What’s On My Plate” identifies common pesticides found on our food.

The War on Bugs by Will Allen ( This is an eye-opening account of the history of selling pesticides.


1. Kupfer D. The good earth? Sandra Steingraber on how we’ve made the environment dangerous to our health. The Sun. 2010;409.

2. Environmental Protection Agency. America’s Children and the Environment — Measure E8: Pesticide residues on foods frequently consumed by children. Updated November 13, 2009. Available at:

3. Huen K, Harley K, Brooks J, et al. Developmental changes in PON1 enzyme activity in young children and effects of PON1 polymorphisms. Environ Health Perspect. 2009;117(10):1632-1638.

4. Benbrook CM. Minimizing pesticide dietary exposure through the consumption of organic food: An Organic Center state of science review. May 2004. Available at:

5. McCullum-Gómez C, Benbrook C, Theuer R. Critical issue report: That first step: Organic food and a healthier Future. March 2009. Available at: Accessed January 5, 2010.

6. Colborn T, Caroll L. Pesticides, sexual development, reproduction, and fertility: Current perspective and future direction. Human and Ecological Risk Assessment. 2007;13(5):1078-1110.

7. Benbrook CM. Simplifying the pesticide risk equation: The organic option: An Organic Center state of science review March 2008. Available at: