After more than 20 years of concern that the pesticide chlorpyrifos could be dangerous for children, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finally banned its use on food.
Since 1965, chlorpyrifos has been widely used as a pesticide, sprayed on many fruits and vegetables and used in households to get rid of ants and roaches. In 2000, because of concern that it could be harmful to the developing brains of children, the EPA worked with those using chlorpyrifos to voluntarily make some changes, such as eliminating most homeowner use (except ant and tick baits, but those were to be sold in child-safe packaging) and decreasing but not eliminating its use on tomatoes, apples, and grapes.
What do we know about the harm chlorpyrifos does to children?
Over time, the evidence of harm has accumulated. A health review in 2016 showed that children with high exposure to chlorpyrifos were at greater risk for developmental and attentional problems, such as mental delays, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and pervasive developmental disorders.
There have been multiple legal challenges to its use, and finally the EPA has banned any food-related use. Because of the substantial and established information about the harm to developing brains, the EPA is skipping the usual draft rule and public comment process and issuing a final ruling.
The fact that it has taken more than 20 years — and that the ban only applies to food-related use — underlines the fact that we cannot take the safety of our food for granted. It's important that all of us do our best to be aware of the chemicals that may be in our food and water supply. This is especially true for pregnant women and young children.
How can we protect young brains from harmful chemicals?
It's nearly impossible to avoid all chemicals; they are literally everywhere. But you can decrease exposure to some of the most dangerous ones. The Environmental Working Group website has a lot of valuable information about many different possible exposures and how to decrease them. For example, it has a list it calls the "Dirty Dozen," the 12 fruits and vegetables that are most likely to be contaminated with pesticides. Given that organically grown produce is generally more expensive, this list gives families a way to make informed decisions. The list is updated yearly. In 2021, strawberries, spinach, and kale/collard greens/mustard greens are the top three.
Here are some other ways you can work to protect young brains from toxic chemicals:
- Make sure there is no lead in your house or your water supply.
- Limit the use of plastics in food packaging and the baby bottles, cups, and plates your family uses to drink and eat, particularly phthalates and bisphenol-A.
- Avoid fish that are high in mercury contamination, such as swordfish and shark, and choose those that are lower in mercury contamination, such as salmon and flounder. See this chart for a wide range of healthful seafood options.
- Be aware of the risk of arsenic contamination from rice and rice products, as well as juice.
- Skip commercially prepared baby food and use homemade baby foods or soft table food.
If you have questions about your particular situation or risk, talk to your doctor.
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If you'd like to learn about the links between pesticide use, climate change, and reproductive health, read What We Sow in Harvard Medicine magazine.