Pesticides, Chemicals & ADHD

There are growing concerns about a link between pesticides and ADHD. In a recent US study of over 1200 children between 8 and 15 years, Harvard Dr Marc Weisskopf reports findings in the Pediatrics Journal say that children exposed to pesticides known as organophosphates (OP) could have a higher risk of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Weisskopf and his colleagues tracked pesticide breakdown products in the children's urine and found that those with high levels of pesticide breakdown products were almost twice as likely to develop ADHD as those with undetectable levels.

The findings are based on assessment of the general US population, meaning that exposure to the pesticides could be harmful even at levels commonly found in children's environments. Dr Weisskopf points out that the study reveals that pesticides may affect children even at low concentrations.

Organophosphate pesticides were used as chemical warfare agents and are known to be toxic to the nervous system. There are about 40 organophosphate pesticides registered in the United States and these are also registered for use in Australia.

Weisskopf says the compounds have been linked to behavioural symptoms common to ADHD - for instance, impulsivity and attention problems.

Dr Weisskopf says the most likely culprits are pesticides and insecticides used on food and household insecticides and gardening products.

For every 10-fold increase in one compound, ADHD increased by more than half. The odds of ADHD almost doubled in kids with above-average levels compared of dimethyl triophosphate, the most common breakdown product, to those without detectable levels. This is a very strong association; if this is true it is of serious concern, because these are widely used pesticides.

Dr Weisskopf urges parents to be aware of what insecticides they were using around the house and to wash produce. He says that thoroughly washing fruit and vegetables before eating them would definitely help a lot."

Jo Immig of Australia's National Toxics Network reveals that Organophosphates (OP), including chlorpyrifos, are widely used in Australia to produce food and for pest treatments around homes. “Children are at greatest risk from exposure to OP pesticides because their developing biological systems are more at risk of damage during rapid growth. Children contact contaminated surfaces, like playing on the floor surfaces where residues of pesticides accumulate.

Although this information is alarming, it’s easy to believe that it’s not possible  - children’s brains being affected by chemicals used in most Australian homes?

There is though, an unknown reason for the rise in learning and behavioural difficulties in children, so we would be wise not to dismiss research that helps point towards possible causes. There are some indisputable facts we must all face; the use of chemicals in horticulture, farming, gardening and inside every household has increased dramatically in recent decades. It is also true that learning and behavioural disorders in children are rising – almost every class in schools across Australia has one or more children with learning disabilities.

While parents, teachers and the community at large waits for science to arrive at a conclusion, it is wise to avoid chemicals at home, in the garden, plus in and on our food where possible.

Buying fruit and veg from supermarkets means your produce may have had a long storage time, with unknown chemicals used to prolong the shelf life. Fortunately growing your own veggies at home or in a community garden is gaining popularity for a range of reasons – it’s fun, it’s healthy and you get to know what’s happened to food before you eat it. Where possible, buy local produce that you know the source of, and wash it all thoroughly before eating or cooking it. If your budget allows, buy organic produce and rest easy. Make a statement by buying organic in supermarkets, which extend to several hundred lines now. They’re getting the message!

Household cleaners and pesticide sprays are a source of potential toxicity for everyone, but particularly children, because their bodies are designed to absorb what they are exposed to at a higher rate than adults.

It’s fairly easy to clean the house using minimal cleaning products – cleaning mitts and wipes with special textures that you use with water are widely available. Vinegar is a better mould deterrent than bleach and much, much safer. Household insecticide sprays are a major source of toxicity – avoid them and find other ways to deter insects.

Body care products are also a concern, (with different chemicals involved). For example, I recently read a report that antibacterial liquid soaps contain a chemical called triclosan (read the label on yours), which accounts for up to 30% of dioxins in our environment.  Fortunately organic soaps, moisturisers and shampoos are available at affordable prices now.

It’s fairly easy to significantly reduce chemical exposure to you and your family, by becoming aware of what’s in household, gardening and personal care products and changing your buying habits. Far better to err on the side of caution while the definitive reports are taking shape – it may be ten or more years before they appear in the news. Then the government has to legislate and regulate the manufacturing industry…… In the meantime, let’s keep our kids clear of as many chemicals as we can.