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Choose Organic, for the Health of ItPrint

Food & Farming | May 24, 2010 | By Jim Sluyter

A presidential panel and a top pediatric research organ warning strongly that some chemicals in our food, due to pesticides and plastic containers, are dangerous.

I am not surprised when I see organic food promoted for its health benefits by the likes of the Organic Consumers Association or theRodale Institute, or hey, even the Michigan Land Use Institute.

But when two reports promoting organic foods roll across my computer screen in as many weeks, I take notice-especially from mainstream sources like the President’s Cancer Panel andBusiness Week-I must make sure you get the news.

First, the President’s Cancer Panel: The report, Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now, specifically addresses agricultural chemicals used on lawns, gardens, and farms, as well as other chemicals, like those in plastic.

The bottom line? Avoid them!

The report suggests that previous estimates of cancers caused by such chemical exposure are “grossly underestimated.”

Pointing out that of some 80,000 chemicals in commercial use today, only about 200 have been tested for safety, the panel advises limiting exposure to pesticides, industrial chemicals, medical X-rays, vehicle exhaust, plastic food containers, and too much sun.

Here are just a few of the specific recommendations (you can read plenty more in the long, but surprisingly readable report):

  • Buy food grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers (read: “organic”).
  • Eat meat from free-range animals that have not been given growth hormones or antibiotics (read: “organic”).
  • Drink filtered tap water. Avoid bottles of water-BPA in plastics is a big issue-unless it is known that tap or well water is contaminated.
  • Reduce or eliminate exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke.
  • Reduce exposure to radiation (they give specifics), and get your home tested for radon.
  • Microwave food in glass or ceramic containers to reduce exposure to chemicals that can leach from plastic.
  • Children are far more susceptible than adults, and particular care must be taken to reduce their exposure.

The other report, which looks at organophosphate pesticides, finds an association between exposure and ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder).

The research, scheduled to appear in the June issue of Pediatrics, found that kids with high levels of the breakdown products of these chemicals were almost twice as likely to develop ADHD as those with undetectable levels.

The findings are based on data from the general U.S. population, not mega-doses given to lab animals. This means that exposure to the pesticides might be harmful at levels actually found where kids live.

“There is growing concern that these pesticides may be related to ADHD,” said Marc Weisskopf of the Harvard School of Public Health, who worked on the study.

The organophospates are some of the most commonly used pesticides in “conventional” agriculture.

Researchers stopped short of suggesting that these chemicals actually cause ADHD, saying rather that the chemicals are associated with ADHD.

This is no semantic ploy. Think of it more as a cautious statement by scientists whose research was not designed to establish that causal link. But the association was “very strong” and “is of very serious concern,” said Mr. Weisskopf.

Meanwhile, lead author Maryse Bouchard of the University of Montreal advises, “I think it’s safe to say that we should as much as possible reduce our exposure to pesticides.”

That means going organic, buying at farmers’ markets (if your favorite farmer is not certified organic, ask what kind of pesticides are used) and washing fruits and vegetables thoroughly before consuming them.

Jim Sluyter is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Get Farming project coordinator. Reach him at jimsluyter@mlui.org.