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.

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