Pesticide Exposure in the Womb Increases ADHD Risk

How to reduce your family's exposure to pesticides.

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Exposure to pesticides while in the womb may increase the odds that a child will have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, according to researchers at the University of California-Berkeley School of Public Health. Combine that with research published in May in Pediatrics finding that children exposed to pesticides were more likely to have ADHD, and it's enough to make parents wonder how to reduce their family's exposure to pesticides.

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The California researchers are studying the impact of environmental exposures on the health of women and children who live in the Salinas Valley, an agricultural region with heavy pesticide use. They tested the urine of pregnant women for pesticide residue, and then tested the behavior of their children at ages 3½ and 5. The 5-year-olds who had been exposed to organophosphate pesticides while in the womb had more problems with attention and behavior than did children who were not exposed. What's more, the heavier the pesticide exposure, the more likely that the child would have symptoms of ADHD . The results were published online in Environmental Health Perspectives.

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This isn't proof that pesticides cause ADHD, but since organophosphate pesticides are neurotoxins that kill pests by disrupting neurotransmitters that carry signals though the brain, it's easy to imagine that exposure to organophosphate might interfere with brain function and development.

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Food is a significant source of exposure to pesticide residue. Parents who want to reduce their family's pesticide exposure can consider these moves:

1. Choose cleaner fruits and vegetable. Washing helps remove some pesticide residue, as does peeling. But the surest way to avoid pesticide residue on foods is to buy organic varieties of foods that, when not grown organically, are most likely to have pesticide residue, including celery, peaches, strawberries, apples, and blueberries. Other vegetables like corn and peas are usually low in pesticide residue, even when grown conventionally. The Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization, has compiled a list of best and worst fruits and vegetables for pesticide residue, which includes a clip-out guide for shopping.

2. Detoxify your lawn and garden. If you have lawn-care service, ask if the company uses the organophosphate pesticide trichlorfon; it's used almost exclusively by lawn-care companies and golf courses, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Choose less toxic alternatives, or skip the pesticides altogether. Malathion is used in commercial agriculture, lawn care, and mosquito control. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers information on how to reduce Malathion exposure, including the advice that people should steer clear of fields sprayed with Malathion for one week after treatment.

3. Clean out your garden shed. The organophosphate diazinon (brand names: Diazinon, Spectracide) was outlawed for residential use in 2004, but there may be some left in your garage or shed. Check with your community's hazardous-waste disposal program on how to safely dispose of pesticides. Organophosphates kill fish, so don't dump them down the drain.

4. Pick those nits. Malathion is approved for treatment of head lice in children over age 6. But do you really want a neurotoxin on your child's scalp? Non-toxic alternatives include combing, hand-picking nits, and using the face cleaner Cetaphil to suffocate adult lice.

5. Check your school's pest control policy. Many school districts have moved to Integrated Pest Management, which emphasizes less toxic alternatives. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health is a good source for information on how to implement IPM in schools, the kind of thing you could wave at a PTA meeting.