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Choice is Clear on Pesticides

Pollution in People Report - Chapter 5 - pestides - section 1

Laurie Valeriano-lgOver fifteen years as a community organizer and toxic chemicals policy expert, Laurie Valeriano has learned a thing or two about avoiding products that could harm her health. You won’t find vinyl shower curtains or toys at her house, and she limits her use of personal-care products that could contain toxic additives such as phthalates. She knows which plastics are relatively safe, and which ones to steer clear of.

This knowledge, unfortunately, has not fully protected Laurie or her family. Laurie’s body contains mercury, PFCs, toxic flame retardants, PCBs, and phthalates, albeit at lower levels than in other participants. Moreover, it is likely that she passed significant amounts of these chemicals to her three children in the womb and while breastfeeding.

But what we did not find in Laurie’s body shows that her choices are—in at least one significant way—having a positive effect on her and her family’s health. The Pollution in People study, which tested for metabolites of such commonly used pesticides as malathion, chlorpyrifos, azinphos methyl, and carbaryl, did not find any sign of pesticides in Laurie. Why? Well, for starters, Laurie and her family use alternatives to pesticides in their home and garden, go to a pesticide-free park, and eat organically grown food. Her decisions are backed by good evidence, too: University of Washington research has found that children who eat an organic diet are much less likely to be exposed to pesticides (Lu 2005).

Lisa Brown-lgSenator Lisa Brown has made different choices. While she’s been a long-time advocate for government action to protect people and wildlife from toxic chemicals, she makes consumer decisions that most any well-educated woman in the United States would: her home includes electronics likely embedded with toxic flame retardants, and she drives a car with an interior made with phthalates. Most of the food she and her son eat is conventionally grown, not organic. And Lisa, along with five other participants, tested positive for pesticides.

We tested for a series of pesticide breakdown products, or metabolites, that indicate exposure to organophosphate pesticides, as well as the metabolite of the insecticide carbaryl. The carbaryl metabolite was most commonly found, turning up in five participants.3 We also found the organophosphate metabolites known as DMTP (in four participants) and DMP (in two), indicating exposure to the widely used insecticides azinphos methyl and malathion, among other pesticides.4 These insecticides are very commonly used in agriculture, and malathion is also found in some home-use products.

One participant had the metabolite DEP, suggesting she had been exposed to the organophosphates diazinon or chlorpyrifos, or other less commonly used pesticides.

We also tested for a metabolite specific to chlorpyrifos exposure but did not find it in any study participants, possibly reflecting the phaseout of this pesticide’s residential uses, which began in 2000.5 However, pesticide levels in two of our participants, Deb Abrahamson and Ann Holmes Redding, suggest that the two are more highly exposed to organophosphate pesticides than 90% of people nationally when compared against the results of a 2005 CDC study (CDC 2005). Deb had levels of DMP, DMTP, and DEP that put her in the top 10% nationally; Ann’s levels of DMP and DMTP were also in the top 10%. Organophosphates do not persist in the body, so these levels reflect recent exposures. Many of us are exposed to these pesticides regularly over our lifetimes, which often leads to consistently detectable levels.

Figure 6 shows participants’ exposures to organophosphates and carbaryl. The chart shows the number of metabolites of these pesticides detected, out of a total of seven tested.

Figure 6 - Pesticide exposure in Washingtonians

Figure 6:  The number of organophosphate and carbaryl pesticide metabolites detected in participants’ urine. The chart shows the number of metabolites of these pesticides detected, out of a total of seven tested.


3 The presence of 1-napthol (the carbaryl metabolite tested) in urine may also be the result of exposure to naphthalene, tobacco smoke, or fires. None of our study participants is a smoker or lives with a smoker.
4 DMTP, DMP, and DEP are “non-specific” metabolites of organophosphate pesticides, meaning they may result from exposure to more than one pesticide.
5 We also tested for the herbicide 2,4-D, but the test was not sensitive enough to detect levels commonly found in the population at large.



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