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Pesticides may harm infants' brains

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Children of farm workers who were exposed to higher levels of pesticides called organophosphates before birth were more likely to have slower reflexes at 6 months, to have pervasive developmental disorder, a condition similar to Asperger's syndrome, at 2 years and more likely to have ADHD at 5 years according to an article in The Nation. Most alarming of all, the children of mothers exposed to the highest levels of pesticides had IQ scores that were, on average, 7 points lower than children from similar socio-economic backgrounds with less exposure to these toxins. These cruel effects were apparent even at comparatively low levels measured in parts per trillion.

A seven-point IQ difference may mean the difference between being in an honors program or a regular one, going to college or not going. The effect on society as a whole is even worse: multiplied by hundreds of thousands of kids, this collective loss of intellect may have a profound effect on the economy. One expert describe the effects this way:

... even a five-point drop in IQ translates into a 50 percent increase in the number of functionally disabled adults (from 6 million to 9.4 million) and a 50 percent decrease in the number of gifted people (from 6 million to 2.6 million). That shift can bring a host of ripple effects, from an increased number of school kids needing special education to fewer workers capable of complex tasks or high-level decision-making. Experts see parallels between the cognitive effects of organophosphate pesticides and lead poisoning, which causes roughly the same IQ drop. When Trasande looked at the economic impacts of lead poisoning, he found that it cost the United States $51 billion annually in lost economic productivity.

If one assumes a forty-year working life, this amounts to over 2 trillion dollars during that period.

The effects of prenatal pesticide exposure cannot be remedied with a good diet and an intellectually stimulating environment because these toxins do permanent brain damage. Scientists in New York performed a study of inner-city children exposed to high levels of pesticides used to control roaches in housing projects. They, too, showed reduced IQ, impairments in learning and memory, and higher levels of behavior problems. The researchers took MRIs of the children's brains. The results are sobering:

The brains of the most highly exposed kids looked different: there was less volume in regions associated with working memory, cognition and inhibition. All are areas of the brain that play a role in the skills measured on IQ tests. (There were also signs of “desexing”; the boys’ and girls’ brains looked more similar than usual, though it’s not clear what that means.) “There was a relationship between what we saw in IQ and what we were seeing on the MRI,” says Whyatt.

The results of these studies should concern all parents, even if they are not farm workers or inner-city residents: if you live next to a lush golf course which is kept that way through liberal applications of pesticides and synthetic fertilizer, some of these toxins may be affecting your unborn or newborn child. While effects are worse for the poor, not even the well-off can escape them completely.

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