Recently authorities in Vietnam discovered that tons of potatoes for sale in the open market in the town of Da Lat were contaminated with residues of a neurotoxic pesticide chlorpyrifos — at levels 16 times higher than the level permitted. Yes, 16 times higher than residues considered ‘safe’ by Vietnamese authorities.
Imagine a Vietnamese child eating potatoes from this lot. My skin crawls as I think about it. These potatoes were imported from China, so that makes me think that there are similarly contaminated potatoes circulating in Chinese markets too. Asian children are not alone in facing exposure to chlorpyrifos, as U.S. children continue to be exposed to chlorpyrifos through the food they eat and — for rural children — through the air they breathe.
Chlorpyrifos is a toxic pesticide that can have serious impacts on children’s brains, ranging from reduced IQs, deficits in reasoning, working memory and poorer intellectual development. Prenatal exposure to chlorpyrifos is linked to low birth weights and reduced head circumference of newborns, a factor related to children’s subsequent cognitive abilities.
These are known facts, which led to home use products containing the pesticide being withdrawn from the market back in 2001.
But today, significant quantities of the pesticide — 8 to 10 million pounds every year — continue to be used in the U.S. agricultural fields. This sets rural kids up for exposure through pesticide drift, and sets all kids up for exposure through food that's contaminated with chlorpyrifos residues.
‘Safe levels’ of a pesticide?
This news from Vietnam makes me think about what level of chlorpyrifos residues on food are considered ‘safe’ (or of any pesticide for that matter). Different countries have different regulations regarding what level of pesticide residue is considered safe and allowed on food. The numbers vary widely. To me, that seems just scary from the perspective of protecting children’s health.
Industry's old adage ‘dose makes the poison’ is simply incorrect.
Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs) regulate the amount of a specific pesticide that is allowed on a particular food.
Taking the case of potatoes, EPA has set U.S. MRLs for chlorpyrifos at 0.1 parts per million (ppm). Vietnam maintains a MRL of 2 ppm for potatoes, the European Union 0.05 ppm, and India 0.01 ppm. While these may seem like small differences across countries, it's important to remember that pesticides can have impacts at minute levels, especially when we consider their hormone disrupting properties.
Recent science on these low-level effects — and the importance of exposure timing, particularly in children — clearly show us that the old industry adage “the dose makes the poison” is simply incorrect.
Time to cut kids’ chemical load
So what’s the solution? In the case of chlorpyrifos — where so much evidence points to its harm to children’s health — banning this pesticide globally and helping farmers shift to safer alternatives would go a long way toward protecting kids across the world. It would also take care of illegal applications of this pesticide — as clearly was the case with the potatoes being sold in Vietnam.
It would accomplish a bigger goal as well: reducing the overall chemical load carried by the population at large, and particularly children’s small and growing bodies. When home uses of chlorpyrifos were withdrawn in 2001, the level of the chemical's breakdown products in children's bodies dropped significantly. Reductions in infants' head circumference linked to prenatal chlorpyrifos exposure disappeared in urban children after the ban.
This evidence make a strong case that taking action on chlorpyrifos — and other brain damaging pesticides — will protect our children’s developing minds. Seems like quite a good idea to me. And sooner than later.