Event Highlight: Public Health Café - Pesticides & Health

Cynthia Curl speaks at the PH Café.

Forty consumers and scientists joined us for the Public Health Cafe at West Seattle's Chaco Canyon Cafe to hear Cynthia Curl, PhD Candidate in the Departmentt of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences, talk about pesticides in food. The most important message of the night was this: Eat your fruits and vegetables. The health benefits of eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables are greater than the risks of pesticide exposure. The second message was this: We can protect ourselves and our children from being exposed to pesticides by eating an organic diet.

Cynnie told us that the main route of exposure to pesticides for the general public is through diet. She worked on a study that compared pesticide exposure in workers who applied pesticides, in other farmworkers, in children of pesticide applicators, in children of farmworkers, and in children in Seattle.  Pesticide exposure was measured by looking at pesticide metabolites in urine. The researchers expected exposure levels to be in the order above: highest in adults working in agriculture, then children of pesticide applicators, then children of farmworkers, and lowest in children living in Seattle. All was as expected, except that kids in Seattle had higher exposures than kids of farmworkers. The researchers hypothesized that differences in diets might be driving this result, as the children in Seattle ate more fruits and vegetables (foods to which pesticides are commonly applied) than did the children of farmworkers. This led Cynnie and other researchers to focus more on understanding exposures through diet in non-agricultural communities. In another study she worked on, they compared pesticide exposures in children with and without organic diets. They found that kids who ate organic food had 10-fold lower levels of pesticide metabolites in their urine than kids who ate conventionally.

In the US, it is common for the dangers of chemicals to become clear only after they are in widespread use.  If a chemical is found to be harmful, it is taken off the market and replaced with another chemical.  Often, the replacement chemical itself has not been thoroughly evaluated. Organochloride pesticides like DDT were found to thin bird eggs, as described in Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring. They were taken off the market and replaced with organophosphate (OP) pesticides, which have been found to be harmful to human health. OP pesticides are no longer allowed to be sold for residential use but are widely used in agriculture. The most recent pesticides are chemicals like permethrin, deltamethrin and pyrethroid, words ending in -thrin or -throid. These are synthetic versions of pyrethrin, a natural pesticide found in chrysanthemums. But even though this pesticide is natural, it can still be harmful to humans.

You can avoid being exposed to pesticides by eating an organic diet. Avoiding pesticides is especially important for women of childbearing age and for children, because they are more vulnerable to adverse health effects from pesticide exposure. Children are smaller and eat more for their size, which means they get a bigger dose. Also, their brains are still developing. Fetal brains are also developing, and pesticides pass from mother to fetus. The health effects of pesticide exposure are neurological. For example, ADHD has been associated with high urinary pesticide metabolite levels. Now think about this: Eating an organic diet not only prevents you from being exposed, it prevents farmworkers and their families from being exposed to pesticides.

More suggestions: Buy produce in season, and buy local. Other countries have different regulations and may use pesticides that are banned in the US. Buy from the Farmer's Market and the farmer, and have a conversation about how the produce was grown. Cynnie shared a little-known fact about the PLU code on the stickers found on produce. If the sticker has a four number code, the produce is conventionally grown. If there are 5 numbers and the first number is 9, it's organic. If there are 5 numbers and the first number is 8, it's genetically modified.

Here are some helpful resources about pesticides, pesticides in produce, and gardening:

Find information about pesticides, including chemicals, labels, regulations, and more at Washington Toxics Coalition. Enter "pesticides"in the search window.

The Environmental Working Group's Shoppers Guide to Pesticides in Produce lists the fruits and vegetables that contain the most pesticide residues. You can lower your exposure  by avoiding the "Dirty Dozen" most contaminated fruits and vegetables. They are: Apples, celery, sweet bell peppers, peaches, strawberries, nectarines (imported), grapes, spinach, lettuce, cucumbers, blueberries (domestic), potatoes, green beans and kale (Yes, there are 14). Produce lowest in pesticides, making it safer to eat conventional versions, include onions, sweet corn, pineapple, avocado, cabbage, sweet peas, asparagus, mangoes, eggplant, kiwi, cantaloupe (domestic), sweet potatoes, grapefruit, watermelon and mushrooms.

Solid Ground's program Lettuce Link is an innovative food and gardening program that helps create access to fresh, nutritious, organic, and affordable produce, seeds, and gardening information for Seattle families with lower incomes. See their blog and Facebook page.

Other Seattle non-profits that have garden and healthy food projects include P-Patch Community GardensSeattle Tilth and its program Community Kitchens NorthwestFEESTGroundUP Organics,  
Just Garden Project, and Green Plate Special.