25 March 2003
to Pesticides Is Lowered When Young Children Go Organic
By Carol Kaesuk Yoon
detailed assessment of the study
children are famously voracious herbivores, putting away huge quantities
of fruits, juice and vegetables day after day. In fact, so large
are the amounts they eat relative to their small size that many
parents — and researchers — have wondered whether feeding
children organic versus conventionally farmed produce makes any
difference to their health.
study reported recently by scientists at the University of Washington
does not answer the question. But it did find that children fed
predominantly organic produce and juice had only one-sixth the level
of pesticide byproducts in their urine compared with children who
ate conventionally farmed foods.
study's data showed that an organic diet could, under some circumstances,
decrease a child's pesticide exposure — as measured from byproducts
in the urine — from above the amounts considered to be of
negligible risk by the Environmental Protection Agency to levels
the researchers noted that the level of health risk, if any, posed
by such exposure was unknown.
want to know, what does this really mean in terms of the safety
of my kid?" said Cynthia Curl, a research scientist at the
University of Washington and the lead author of the study. "But
we don't know. Nobody does." The study was published in Environmental
Health Perspectives, a journal of the National Institutes of Health.
questions remain, in part, because researchers measured organophosphorus
pesticide exposure by testing the level of the pesticides' metabolites,
or breakdown products, in the children's urine. But there are many
organophosphorus pesticides, including malathion and phosmet, that
produce these metabolites and they can vary widely in toxicity.
So the scientists can make only rough estimates of the relative
risk associated with particular levels of pesticide metabolite in
the real problem, scientists agree, is the lack of knowledge generally
on the health risks — if they exist — of eating foods
treated with pesticides. Though many people assume trace elements
of pesticides in the diet must be dangerous, others say evidence
of danger is sketchy, at best.
justifies the importance of an organic diet, that organic foods
lower a child's exposure," said Dr. John Wargo, a specialist
in risk analysis at Yale. "Industry people are saying show
me the dead bodies. I don't want people gambling with my kids that
Dr. David M. Klurfeld, a nutritionist at Wayne State University
in Detroit, said: "I'm not saying there is no possible health
hazard. But we have to be realistic and that means not to panic
over any of this. I would not change any of my or my family's eating
habits based on this study."
recruited subjects by interviewing families as they left a Seattle
area food cooperative or retail chain supermarket. Each draws a
middle-income to upper-middle-income clientele.
with children 2 to 5 years old were selected and asked to keep diaries
of foods eaten and to provide urine samples. Children who ate at
least 75 percent organic produce and juice were classified as organic.
Those eating at least 75 percent conventional produce were classified
preschoolers are so small and spend much time rolling on lawns and
floors, and sucking on thumbs and toys — all of them possibly
increasing their contacts with pesticides — researchers have
long wondered about the relative importance of different routes
researchers said in the current study that the use of pesticides
in the home did not appear to play a significant role in the levels
of exposures of these children.
Curl said the research was begun because an earlier study of the
effects of income level on pesticide exposure found one child with
absolutely no organophosphorus pesticide byproduct in his urine
— a highly unusual situation. It turned out he was fed an
entirely organic diet, suggesting that diet might be a particularly
important source of exposure for small children.
earlier study found no relationship between income level and pesticide
Richard Fenske, an environmental health scientist at the University
of Washington and an author on the new paper, said that the missing
piece of the puzzle, the risk from varying levels of pesticide exposure,
could ultimately come from proposed federal research known as the
National Children's Study.
study aims to examine the relationship between environmental exposures
and health and development by following more than 100,000 children
from birth to adulthood.
health experts agree that even if it turns out that small amounts
of pesticide residues in the diet present a health risk, the advantages
of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables will probably far outweigh
them. Experts also note that it is impossible to escape exposure
to pesticides without avoiding fruits and vegetables entirely, since
plants produce them in their leaves or fruit since plants produce
them in their leaves or fruit to protect themselves.