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Pregnant women, while still encouraged to eat fruit and vegetables as part of a healthy diet, should wash produce thoroughly before eating, or better yet, buy organic produce. This advice comes in the wake of three new studies linking prenatal exposure to pesticides with lower IQs in children. Pesticides classified as organophosphates are primarily used to treat agricultural crops, and to a lesser extent can be found in yard and garden pest control products.

Indoor pest control products are less likely to contain organophosphates due to related health concerns.

The findings of three studies, funded by the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, correlate with other recent studies linking prenatal pesticide exposure with ADHD in children.

Women living in farming communities have the highest levels of pesticide exposures in the general population. Mothers with the highest levels of organophosphate by-products in their urine had children whose IQs at age 7 were seven points lower, on average, than the children whose mothers had the lowest levels of exposure.

“That’s not unlike the decreases we see in children with high lead exposure,” says the senior study author, Brenda Eskenazi, Ph.D., a professor of epidemiology and maternal and child health at the University of California, Berkeley. “It’s equivalent to performing six months behind the average.”

Two of the studies, looking at babies born in New York, suggest that women living outside farming communities may still be at risk, although to a lesser extent. While the average metabolite levels of the pregnant women in farming communities were substantially higher than the national average, as many as 25% of pregnant women in the general population have levels above the study average.

Researchers do not know the specific mechanism by which organophosphates affects brain development in the fetus. In insect populations, organophosphate-based pesticides affect the breakdown of the neurotransmitter, acetylcholine.

Hugh Tilson, editor of the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, which published the three studies, said: “As a group, these papers add substantial weight to the evidence linking organophosphate pesticides with adverse effects on cognitive development by simultaneously reporting consistent findings for three different groups of children.”

Produce with the highest level of organophosphate pesticides:

  • Green beans (most residues detected)
  • Peaches
  • Sweet bell peppers
  • Celery
  • Nectarines
  • Pears
  • Apples
  • Blueberries
  • Cherries
  • Collard greens
  • Grapes
  • Kale

Produce with the lowest pesticide residue levels:

  • Sweet corn
  • Onions
  • Pineapples
  • Grapefruit
  • Bananas
  • Oranges
  • Cauliflower
  • Potatoes
  • Winter squash
  • Broccoli
  • Carrots
  • Summer squash

The results of these studies, and prior research findings, have been noted by the agribusiness community. According to the co-author of one of the studies, Brenda Eskenazi, the pesticides in question may be on their way to becoming less of a risk. “The industry has been responsive,” she said. “We are definitely seeing a drop, and we’re seeing an increase in organic cropland.”

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