Only Natural 30-Nov-2012
by Dr Sarah Lantz (PhD), Organic Farm Share
What do I do for a living? I work in research – on projects that slice and dice placentas and umbilical cords and examine the chemical compounds inside of them. I’m deeply interested in the interplay between our personal environment (homes, lawns, schools) and the larger ecological world we all inhabit (systems of transportation, agriculture, energy, and toxics regulation). I want to know what makes its way into the human body (even before birth), and how this interplay affects the development of children. Perhaps not the most glamorous of jobs, but what could be more important than the health and development of our children - and their children’s children?
After all, other than the 23 chromosomes that each parent contributes to our children during the moment of their conceptions, their growing bodies are entirely made up of the sum of their environment. Our children are essentially the jet stream, the global food web, and the water cycle. Their lungs absorb oxygen. Water flows through their capillaries. Egg yolks, green beans, and peanut butter become their heart muscles, nerve fibers, and fingernails. And it’s the quality of all these factors that can profoundly interrupt their growth and development, or have them thrive and reach whatever purpose they came onto this planet to do.
So what have we found in the bodies of new born babies?
Lots of things - dioxin, teflon, perfluorochemicals, heavy metals, brominated flame-retardants, sulphates, parabens, phthalates, fragrances, flame-retardants, plastics, preservatives, methyl mercury. And probably the most disturbing of all are the industrial chemicals banned over 30 years ago. Most notably organophosphates - pesticides.
While long-term health effects of exposure to these toxicants are yet to be fully realized, they have been directly linked to a range of childhood morbidities including intellectual impairments, allergenicity, neurological and behavioral disorders, congenital malformations, asthma, and preterm birth.
The evidence of health impacts from pesticide exposure are linked to Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy, asthma, chronic fatigue syndrome([i]), birth defects, brain damage, infertility and cancer - prostate, mammary, breast, ovarian cancer.([ii]) A 2003 study measured levels of organophosphate in the urine of pre-school children in the US. Children with conventional diets had, on average, nine times more organophosphate insecticides in their urine than children fed organic produce.[iii] More recent research from Harvard University examined the relationship between ADHD and exposure to organophosphates. The researchers analyzed the levels of pesticide residue in the urine of more than 1,100 children ages 8 to 15 and found that those with the highest levels of dialkyl phosphates, which are the breakdown products of organophosphate pesticides, had the highest incidence of ADHD and behavioral disorders. Overall, they found a 35% increase in developing ADHD with every tenfold increase in urinary concentration of the pesticide residue. The effect was seen even at the low end of exposure: children who had any detectable, above-average level of the most common pesticide metabolite in their urine were twice as likely as those with undetectable levels to record symptoms of learning disorders.([iv])
These findings are not really surprising when you think about it though. Pesticides, by design, are made kill. In particular, they are designed to kill insects, bugs and rodents by disrupting (and destroying) specific neurotransmitters in the brain. And given that babies’ brains (up until the age of six-months) have open blood-brain barriers, they too are particularly susceptible to the brain-destroying risks of pesticides. In fact, at this stage of their lives, babies brains do not distinguish weather a molecule is toxic or a precious morsel of iron or calcium. The brain therefore affords free passage to most environmental chemicals in the early months after birth.
Also consider that the science community does not know about thresholds of harm or what levels of pesticide exposure are sufficient to endanger health. We know even less about their effects on children. This is what we call ‘uncertain risk’. And while the Australia government has ratified a number of international policy agreements pertaining to chemicals and their regulation, such that we have some universally recognized concern for the future, it currently does not exercise the precautionary principle in its chemical regulations. This means that many pesticides no longer permitted for use in other parts of the world, are still widely used in Australia. The insecticide Endosulfan, for example, a chemical that has the potential for bioaccumulation and a known endocrine disruptor, was banned in Australia in 2010, reversing earlier rulings that said it was safe if used correctly. Whilst this was a landmark decision for families across Australia, 60 countries had already banned the toxic chemical years earlier.
Over 8000 pesticide and veterinary products are registered for use in Australian agriculture, horticulture, livestock, forestry, commercial premises, parks, homes and gardens. Last year the National Toxics Network released a list of Australia’s most dangerous pesticides. More than 80 of these were prohibited in the United Kingdom, France, Germany and the other 24 member countries of the European Union. Of particular concern for families are Atrazine used to control weeds in sorghum, maize, and sugar cane crops. Atrazine is a suspected reproductive disrupter and was banned in the EU in 2003 following a review scientific review which concluded that atrazine and its breakdown products presented a risk to EU groundwater quality standards. Another insecticide is Chlorpyrifos, used on a wide range of Australian fruit and vegetable crops, sugar cane, cotton, cereals and pastures, home gardens and domestic pests. The pesticide regulatory board, the APVMA, initiated a review of chlorpyrifos in 1996 because of its human toxicity, acute toxicity to birds, water pollution potential and other factors. After 14 years, the review is still ongoing, while the EU and the US, have significantly restricted its use, particularly in areas where children could be exposed to it such as schools and parks.
A salient feature of chemical exposure though, and one that gives me great hope, both as a researcher and as a parent, is that chemical exposure is largely an act of human activity, and because of this, it is a preventable and modifiable risk factor for many diseases. The decisions we make today - as parents, consumers, policy makers, citizens - in relation to the use of chemicals in the environment will directly (and indirectly) affect the heath of our children – both the current generation and future generations. And for parents, toxicity of any kind, should not a consumer choice.
So while the government is getting its act together to legislate in support of protective policies, it is necessary to consciously and deliberately create healthy habitats for our children. Consider that a return to our organic agricultural roots is at the heart of turning this all around.
Supporting organic farming is an important investment into the health of children and families. Organic farms, such as Organic Farm Share, is based on an agricultural system that does not rely on toxic chemicals to produce the food we eat. Based on the principle of community-supported agriculture, Organic Farm Share supplies fresh produce directly to member families. In turn, their support of the Farm helps pay for the seeds, machinery, and labour, of farmers production expenses. This investment is returned via fresh, local produce, fruit and vegetables, eggs, herbs, flowers and artisan products such as fermented foods, jams, sauces, and honey. It is ecologically and nutritionally sustainable. It significantly reduces food miles – in the case of Organic farm Share by 92% - nourishes growing bodies, and is a preventative measure for cancer, birth defects, asthma and behavioral disorders.
And along with fresh local produce also comes intangible benefits of being connected to an organic farm. Children learn a lot about where food comes from - how animals are raised and vegetables grown without ‘icide’ chemicals. My own children for example now know the people who produce their food and the animals that participate in the food system. They know cows have more than one stomach - but still can’t tell you what they do. They can make butter in a jar in about 10 minutes. They know what an eggplant is, a finger lime and tumeric; they know what month snap peas come into season and when the mulberries are fat, purple and ready to eat. Surely there is not better purpose in life than to pass on a planet that is regenerating itself, a planet that will support our children and our children’s children. That we become true and responsible custodians of this beautiful earth, our children, and future generations.
[i] Landrigan, PJ. & Garg, A. (2004) ‘Children are not little adults’, in de Garbino, JP (ed), Children’s health and the environment: A global perspective, A Resource Manual For The Health Sector, Geneva: WHO; Chap 2:3-16.
[ii] Maclennan, P., et al., Cancer incidence among triazine herbicide manufacturing workers. JOEM, 2002. 44(11): p. 1048-1058; Sass, J., Letter to the editor. JOEM, 2003. 45(4): p. 1-2.; Kettles, M.A., et al., Triazine exposure and breast cancer incidence: An ecologic study of Kentucky counties. Environ. Health Perspect., 1997. 105(11): p. 1222-1227.
[iii] Culrl, C. et al. Organophosohorus Pesticide Exposures of Urban and Suburban Pre0school Children with Organic and Conventional dients, Enviro Health Perspectives, 2003: 377-382.
[iv] Maryse F. Bouchard, David C. Bellinger, Robert O. Wright and Marc G. Weisskopf, ‘Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and Urinary Metabolites of Organophosphate Pesticides’, Journal of Pediatrics, published online May 17, 2010; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2009-3058