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August 19th, 2010
03:00 AM ET

Pesticide exposure linked to ADHD

Children exposed to common pesticides are more likely to have problems with attention span, according to a new study that followed mothers and children from the time of pregnancy, to age 5.

The chemicals in question – organophosphates – have mostly been banned from household pesticides, but are widely used in agriculture. At high doses, they are known to be highly damaging to the brain and nervous system. The impact through chronic, lower doses has been controversial.

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, began by measuring pesticide exposure in the womb, then followed up with the same children, years later. Using a variety of measures, they found that children with more exposure to organophosphates fared worse – both on computerized testing of attention span, and standard scales used to assess attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Interestingly, the problems were significantly more noticeable at age 5, than at age 3 1/2. While that seems to suggest the problems are long-lasting, Brenda Eskenazi, Ph.D., one of the study authors, said it may simply be that testing is more reliable when children are older.

The children studied were mostly Mexican-American, all drawn from the Salinas Valley, a farming area in Central California that is a major producer of fruits and vegetables. Organophosphate levels in both mothers and children were higher than they are in the U.S. population as a whole, but not dramatically so, according to Eskenazi.

“The levels of some organophosphates were very similar to the general U.S. population, while others were significantly higher,” Eskenazi said. “But they weren’t magnitudes higher. They weren’t toxic. [These results] are applicable.”

While people in the Salinas Valley are exposed through air and dust from crop fields, the main exposure for most Americans comes through eating fruits or vegetables. But Eskenazi warns that it would be a big mistake to avoid eating fruits and vegetables just to avoid pesticides – especially for pregnant women. She says you can avoid most of the risk, simply by washing produce before you eat it.

Teresa Thorne, a spokeswoman with the Alliance for Food and Farming, a group that represents farmers and produce associations, agreed with that last point. “The FDA clearly states you can reduce or eliminate residues, if they are present at all, simply by washing. The vast majority of fruits and vegetables have no detectable residue at all.”

In May, a study in the journal Pediatrics reported that children with above-average levels of a common pesticide byproduct had twice the ADHD risk of those with average levels.


soundoff (265 Responses)
  1. Erik

    "She says you can avoid most of the risk, simply by washing produce before you eat it."
    Well that just may be the biggest lie I have heard all day..you really think there isn't this thing in nature called rain, and that pesticide makers don't know about this phenomenon?

    August 17, 2010 at 23:53 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Billy

      Erik...Not all produce gets rained on before being harvested. Think things through before jumping to simple minded conclusions.

      August 18, 2010 at 00:10 | Report abuse |
    • Common Misconception

      If you think random rain is equivalent to equivalent to an actual washing… you have more problems than just ignorance on the subject. Pesticides are sprayed regularly, not just once and left to chance.

      August 19, 2010 at 13:40 | Report abuse |
    • MShade

      Most pesticides are petroleum based which is why even washing it in water or rain is useless. This is why people in the know use Fit wash (active ingredient is grapefruit oil) or even dish detergent. Water alone won't do a thing.

      August 19, 2010 at 22:01 | Report abuse |
  2. Emma

    This is disturbing to me because I am pregnant and I eat a lot of fruits and veggies. Other articles I've read state that it is virtually impossible to remove pesticides from fruit because as the fruit is growing the pesticides enter the plant. I have a 15 year old nephew who has been diagnosed with ADHD. He's smart but has difficulty in school. My brother was diagnosed years ago with hyperactivity disorder and dislexia. He suffered in school because he couldn't concentrate and as a result he never learned to read. I wish food growers in this country had more of a conscience about the foods they are producing. I'm sick and tired of the corporate mentality that has caused the food supply to become tainted because they always place profits over health and safety. You can't even eat salad or raw vegatables today without some fear that you may be sickened with Ecoli or Salmanella. The thought of pesticides on my food is disgusting and there must be a better way. Americans need organic, healthy, safe, natural foods and that is what I will look for whenever I shop from now.

    August 18, 2010 at 00:08 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Jim

      Don't be worried about this "study," it is more junk science. OP's (organophosphates) can be dangerous yes BUT the level of exposure between living on the farm and eating fruits and veggies and not living on the farm is enormous. This is more scare tactics ma'am. Having a group surrounded byOP's constantly and having very little difference is not proof of anything for when it comes to eating fruits and veggies.

      August 18, 2010 at 06:01 | Report abuse |
  3. daniel

    i lived in a biker /parollee neibhorhood on and off for 40 years drugs came in arround the early sixtys and never left -ive seen two generations at least-personall with many in this are – ive seen verry high consentrations of speed /meth amphetamine related issues over several years –im not a doctor -nor can i medically prove anything -but by numbers – ive seen familyswhere either husbandor wife has used speed for several years – and some of there children -not all seem to have issues when the parrents have kids -the few kids -develop ADHD, BI=POLAR DISORDER ,OR EPILEPSY -I DONT KNOW IF THERE ARTE LINKS -NOR CAN I PROVE THIUS SCIENTIFFICALLY NO MEDICALLY -but ive seen many FAMILYS -OR FORMER DRUG ADDICTS -EVEN AFTER THE PARRENTS QUIT -THE THE CHILDREN IN SOME CASES ,NOT ALL END UP THIS WAY .-IVE ALSO SEEN THAT ADHD KIDS OVER TIME THAT DO NOT GROW OUT OF ADHD -TEND TO HAVE ALOT OF STRENGTH WHEN FIGHTING -EACH OTHER -ALMOST NOT NORMAL -AND ALSO BECAUSE OF CHRONIC DISIPLINE OVER THE YEARS TEND TO RESENT AUTHORITY WHEN THEY GET OLDER AND IN SOME CASES BECOME ABUSIVE .ALSO -IVE NOTICED IN THE PAST WHEN CHILDREN OF TWO DIFFERENT FAMILYS -HAD TWO KIDS IN DIFFERTENT SCHOOLS -ON MEDS 0LIKE MELARYL?SPELLING OR RITALIN? SPELLING ? TENDED TWO A FEW HOURS APART -ON HOT OR HOT HUMIDS SUMMER DAYS – BECAME OUT OF CONTROL – SO I DONT KNOW IF HEAT OR BAROMETRIC PRESURE OR HUMIDITY OR OTHER EVIRONMENTAL PROBLEMS CREATE PROBLEMS WITH PEOPLE UNDER THE INFLUENCE OF PSYCH MEDS OR IF ITS JUST WEATHER RELATED /SEASON RELATED IF ANY6 ONE IS A DOC OR NURSE YOU MAY WISH TO PERSURE THESE INVESTIGATIONS -AS IM UNABLE IM JUST SHOWING THE PUBLIC WHAT IVE NOTICED OVER SEVERAL YEARS -LASTLY –JUSY LIKE VIDEO GAMES MAY EFFECT CHILDRENS MOODS BECAUSE OF FOCUS OR ADDICTIONS TO THEM -ADULTS TEND TO GO FROM HAVEING A REAL LIFE TO -STUCK ONLINE IN COMPUTERS YO MUCH AND SOME OF THE NEWS OVER A FEW MONTHS TENDS TO AFFECT PERSONALITYS AND JOBS AND WORRIES AND STRESS FACTORS
    PLEASE RESEARCH THIS TOO .....JUST REPORTING THINGS IVE OBSERVED OVER YEARS –BYE -DANIEL

    August 18, 2010 at 01:58 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Shelby

      Parents who abuse drugs often use/abuse alcohol as well. Using alcohol is one of the worst things a woman can do while pregnant. Fetal alcohol syndrome can cause serious behavior issues that cannot be addressed by medication. These children have virtually no impulse control and will repeat the same mistakes over and over again. Unfortunately, incarceration or institutionalization due to dangerous and sometimes violent behavior is often the ultimate outcome. Exposure to drugs can also cause issues, but alcohol is the substance that most easily crosses from mother to child and affects development during pregnancy.

      August 20, 2010 at 23:18 | Report abuse |
  4. daniel

    P.S. SPEED MANUFACTURE REQUIRES MANY ITEMS TO "COOK" A "BATCH" -ALMOST ALL HAVE SKULL AND CROSS BONES ON THERE LABELS -MANY INVOLVE DERIVITIVES OF ORGANIC CHEMNICALS IN ALKANE GASSES /SATURATED HYDROCARBONS --MIX THE HYDRO CARBONS WITH CHLORINE OR FLORINE – AND YOU HAVE A GAS THAT HAS OXIDATION EFFECTS AND CATCHES FIRE WITH AIR EXPOSURE "DESIODECACANE ? SPELLING --AND IT HAS THE ABILITY TO MAKE CHLOROPHORM AND ITS TASTLESS AND INVISIBLE AND CHENICALLY REACTS AND MAY HEAT WARP CELLS AND CHANGE CHEMICAL PROPERTYS OF LYMPH OPIL TO SOLVENTS AND AFFECT THE THERMO DYNAMICS OF DNA – LYMPH OIL MIXED WITH SATURATED HYDRO CARBONS – MIXED WITH CHOLESTRERAL /PROTIEN/DNA < NUCLACIC ACID AT NUCKLEUSES - TO ME THIS MAY EXPLAIN -SPONTANIOUS HUMAN COMBUSTION – OR CANCER AND MAY BY STEEPING CAUSE THE BODYS IMUNE SYSTEM NO TO RECOGNISE REGIONS IN THE BODY AS UNDER ATTACK BY CANCER CELLS --AND HAS THE ABILITY TO MUTATE CANCER CELLS THERMO DYNAMICS TURNING THEM INTO DESTRUCTIVE MASS PRODUCERS CALL ME CRAZY BUT THIS LOOKS LIKE HOW CANCER OPERATES AND WAYS IT USES -IM NOT A DOCTOR BUT IM A HOBBYIST I MAY BE WRONG ON MANY LEVELS BUT ID ASK FOR REASEARCH ON THESE THINGS ALSO -THANKS DANIEL ...

    August 18, 2010 at 02:09 | Report abuse | Reply
    • little letters please

      Daniel, next time please don't type using all capital letters. It makes it too difficult to read your posts.

      Please also "break-up" what you're saying, as I've done here. Few people are going to read your long paragraphs of all capital letters. It's just too difficult to read. Thanks.

      August 18, 2010 at 06:34 | Report abuse |
    • david crawley

      It WAS hard to read with all caps, but I did because it was interesting. I feel badly about Daniel growing up in the environment he describes, He seems very smart, I would like someone to help him get a good education so he COULD do research. He has the type of mind that is likely to get results, but our society is bad at spotting this.

      August 19, 2010 at 14:10 | Report abuse |
  5. Bill little

    FYI...Bill

    August 18, 2010 at 07:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. sherry

    I have had ADHD all my 45 years and I have had periods of medication and periods without and by far the times when I had my medication were the most productive in every aspect of my life. I spend less, eat less talk less, pay more attention to detail , graduated with high honors from college, and have better relationships when I have my medication. I don't care what anyone else says, I know exactly what ADHD is and what it is like to live with it. Both of my sons also have it and my youngest, who has never been medicated is starting 1st grade and I am afriad he will suffer becuase of no meds but I am not sure meds at such a young age are good for him........ I am very torn. I did nto have meds growing up and suffered at the hands of teachers and classmates for being impulsive and way over active. Those who think it is not a 'real' disorder do not have it and do not understand it. I encourage them to conduct a study of thier own to show that all the symptoms I have that are from ADHD are imagined, oh and explain how my father, grandfather and one of my brothers also has it? By the way we were not raised together and did not know about each other until I was an adult.

    August 19, 2010 at 11:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Common Misconception

    This is possible. I have ADD, and I grew up being taken from farm to farm in a rural area of Minnesota (then) when my dad worked for USDA.

    August 19, 2010 at 13:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. christopher

    ADHD or at least ADD may in some cases be a sign of very high intelligence, that cannot stand the ponderous nature of our educational system. They often are run over and never contribute what they could have.

    August 19, 2010 at 14:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Frank Barnhill, MD

    Could it be that pesticides might yet be another ADHD imposter (zebra) causing children to display the core symptoms of ADHD even in the absence of the actual disease? I along with many other behavior experts believe that to be the case.

    According to an article published in the June 2010 issue of Pediatrics, the Journal of The American Academy of Pediatrics, a study by Maryse F. Bouchard, PhD of the University of Montreal Department of Environmental and Occupational Health and co-investigators; showed a strong association between the presence of ADHD-like symptoms and the pesticide metabolite, dimethyl triphosphate (DMTP) in the urine of probable exposed children. (While there are six metabolites which may be excreted by children exposed to organophosphates, DMTP is the most common!)
    These children reportedly had as great as 10 fold increases in DMTP levels in their urine indicating probable long-term exposure. When compared with children with no or very low urine levels of DMTP, those with high levels were found twice as likely to be ADHD. The study therefore concluded that organophosphate exposure may contribute to the current prevalence of ADHD in the United States. (Importantly, the key words here are may contribute!)
    We have long known that exposure to toxic substances such as mercury and lead can cause a child’s nervous system (including the brain) to fail to develop properly resulting in behavior problems (including hyperactivity and impulsivity), learning disabilities, inattentiveness, and long-term memory and cognitive disorders.
    We all know how frustrating an ADHD kid's behavior can be and how helpless parents feel when they keep bringing home failing grades despite being on ADHD drugs. Our goal should be to ensure every behavior-disordered child is accurately evaluated and treated, avoid using drugs unnecessarily and that can't occur in a 10 minute doctor's visit!
    Please visit http://www.ADHDbehavior.com for more info.

    Frank Barnhill, MD Author "Mistaken for ADHD"

    August 19, 2010 at 14:45 | Report abuse | Reply
    • SW

      Be very careful about seeking untested, unproven, expensive treatments not covered by health insurance.

      August 20, 2010 at 23:24 | Report abuse |
  10. Susie Q

    I would like to know that when a person injuries nerves in their back, this same nerves are connected to the brain, how does this affect the brain.

    August 19, 2010 at 21:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. shallon

    Dr. Gupta, I am writing about a dear friend of mine Ms. Sherry Boykin who had a gastro bypass, and as a result of the surgrey she has lost all of her small intestines, she has over come cancer, and is now shrinking from 5'7 to 4'6 and shrinking still. I have never seen anything like it. She also has a degenterating bone desease and she has to be feed through a tube to get her nutrients into her body. She has shown me pictures of her after the surgrey and when I look at her today it is unreal. Ms. Boykin's e-mail address is sherryboykin36@yahoo.com

    August 20, 2010 at 11:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Sam

    I just recently got married on July 31, was stressed out for the last month. I began to feel sick a week after the wedding. I thought it was the flue for a week, then I went to the doctor and he sent me home. Then a week later went to the doctor, this time now I've been sick for two weeks and he told me my gallblader was bad and gave me a 90% chance it was the problem. Two days after the surgry went home and still sick. Came back and they found a aulser.I feel like I got robbed, what shoold I do?

    August 22, 2010 at 21:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Ann

    Aspartame (NutraSweet and Equal) are also linked to ADHD. Before you give your kids another diet soda, think if you are ruining their brains in the long run. Dr. Olney warned of the damage that this product would do to the unborn and to children. He said that the FDA acknowledged "aspartame had been shown to induce brain damage in neonatal animals” but FDA dismissed the neurotoxicity as irrelevant on grounds that the approved uses of aspartame don’t include feeding it to newborn humans. Yet aspartame can be found in prescription and over-the-counter pediatric drugs and in pediatric vitamins. Nursing babies receive this poison from mothers who breastfeed. The recent plague of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), autism, and birth defects manifest the neurologic devastations of aspartame. Supporting this view, Dr. Louis Elsas, Emory Professor of Pediatrics and Genetics, testified in a congressional hearing that aspartame is a teratogen (causes birth defects) and a neurotoxin.

    September 5, 2010 at 00:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Nick Winslow

    The answer is simple. Eat ORGANIC produce cultivated without the use of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers etc. Food has been grown in this fashion from the time of the first cultivation in the Fertile Crescent until the period following the artificial synthesis of urea in the 19th century - thousands of years. It is difficult to determine what is "junk science" when multinational corporations control the data. Most Americans cannot fathom the intricacies of the data anyway.

    September 11, 2011 at 14:02 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.