If you’re trying to get pregnant and raise healthy children, recent science suggests you should consider switching to an organic diet and voting out politicians who put the pesticide industry in charge of our nation’s health laws.
In just the past few weeks, the Journals of the American Medical Association have published studies implicating pesticide-treated foods in fertility problems and documenting large increases in human exposure to the world’s most widely used pesticide, along with a physician’s commentary encouraging people to eat organic.
For their study in JAMA Internal Medicine, Harvard researchers followed 325 women at an infertility clinic and found that women who regularly ate pesticide-treated fruits and vegetables had lower success rates getting pregnant with IVF, while women who ate organic food had reduced risk of pregnancy loss and increased fertility.
The findings surprised lead researcher Jorge Chavarro, MD, of Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
“I was always skeptical that pesticide residues in foods would have any impact on health whatsoever. I thought we were not going to find anything,” he told Time magazine.
But now: “I am now more willing to buy organic apples than I was a few months ago,” Dr. Charvarro said.
The Harvard study sends “a warning that our current laissez-faire attitude toward the regulation of pesticides is failing us,” wrote epidemiologist and pediatrician Phillip Landrigan, MD, of Mount Sinai in a commentary in the same issue of JAMA.
The new study “comes at a time when multiple lines of evidence suggest that human fertility is on the decline and that the frequency of reproductive impairment is increasing,” Landrigan said – trends such as reduced sperm counts and increases in reproductive birth defects and testicular cancer that are “almost certainly” linked to environmental exposures to chemicals.
He said physicians should respond to these findings by educating patients about pesticides and urging reductions in exposure wherever possible.
“Encourage our patients to eat organic,” Dr. Landrigan wrote. “And educate elected officials and other policy makers about the hazards of pesticides—make them realize that pesticides are not merely a regulatory issue or an environmental problem, but that in fact these potent chemicals can have powerful effects on human health that need to be intelligently confronted.”
His statement echoes the advice of the American Academy of Pediatrics to reduce children’s exposure to pesticides. “There is a growing body of literature that suggests that pesticides may induce chronic health complications in children, including neurodevelopmental or behavioral problems, birth defects, asthma, and cancer,” states a 2012 AAP paper in Pediatrics,
Rising levels of common pesticide in our bodies
Another recent JAMA study documented large increases in human exposure to the weed killer chemical glyphosate, the main ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup weed killer — and prompted more calls for government intervention.
Analyzing urine samples collected over two decades, researchers at UC San Diego reported that human exposure to glyphosate increased about 500% since the introduction of genetically modified crops (GMOs), most of which are engineered to survive Roundup pesticide spray.
Lead researcher Paul Mills told Time magazine that the levels of glyphosate found in people were 100-fold greater than levels of glyphosate fed to rats that developed liver disease in a long-term feeding study.
Glyphosate is also a probable human carcinogen, according to the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Hundreds of farmers and their families in the U.S. are suing Monsanto claiming glyphosate caused them or their loved ones to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
A recent update to the large Agricultural Health Study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute failed to identify a link between glyphosate and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, but reported evidence of increased risk of acute myeloid leukemia (AML) among people with the highest glyphosate exposures.
AML is a fast-growing cancer with a low survival rate, so this finding “should be very concerning to the public and particularly to pesticide applicators,” wrote Jennifer Sass of NRDC. She said the AHS study does not change the relevance of the IARC findings that glyphosate is “probably” a human carcinogen.
Two weeks ago -- amid revelations that Monsanto manipulated the science on glyphosate for decades -- the European Union failed to reauthorize glyphosate. Just hours before that vote, regulators in Arkansas voted to regulate dicamba, a weed killer used in combination with GMO crops that has damaged millions of acres of farmland.
“Taken together, the decisions reflect an increasing political resistance to pesticides in Europe and parts of the United States,” reported Danny Hakim in the New York Times .
What we can do to protect our families and our health
The science suggests we need to step up political resistance and insist on common-sense regulations for the pesticide industry.
As Dr. Landrigan wrote, “We need to overcome the strident objections of the pesticide manufacturing industry, recognize the hidden costs of deregulation, and strengthen requirements for both premarket testing of new pesticides, as well as postmarketing surveillance of exposed populations — exactly as we do for another class of potent, biologically active molecules—drugs.”
A September commentary in the AAAS magazine Science argues that lessons learned from pharmaceutical regulations could help improve pesticide regulations. The authors called for “pesticidovigilance” — requiring long term, post-market monitoring and data gathering of adverse effects, similar to the practice of pharmacovigilance.
In June, 14 researchers writing in Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health pointed out the many gaps in existing evaluations on glyphosate and concluded, “the current safety standards are outdated and fail to protect public health and the environment.”
They called for biomonitoring studies to document human exposures, state-of-the-art hazard assessments, and epidemiological studies that examine exposed workers, pesticide manufacturers and vulnerable populations.
In the meantime, we can use existing science as a guide. For those of us who are concerned about fertility, cancer and raising healthy children, science is suggesting we switch to an organic diet to reduce pesticide exposure and vote for politicians who are willing to stand up to the pesticide industry.