The Poison of a Second Son

Poison Fruit
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At age 7, the highly exposed children in Rauh's sample had lower IQs and deficits in working memory. The team in Berkeley also found that exposure to organophosphates had significant lasting effects. In their group, 7-year-olds who had the highest level of exposure to organophosphate pesticides, including chlorpyrifos, had IQ scores that were seven points lower than those with the lowest exposure.


The researchers at Mt. Sinai had similar findings. In fact, all three groups of scientists studying chlorpyrifos were so similar that they decided to publish them together. Each one had independently found that chlorpyrifos had neurodevelopmental effects on children. Perhaps most startlingly, the researchers were seeing effects at levels of chlorpyrifos lower than the ones that interfered with cholinesterase. In Rauh's study, the pesticide had lasting effects on kids' brains at levels 20 times below the EPA's safety level.

Nor would it have been ethical to deliberately expose humans to brain-altering levels of chlorpyrifos. Yet just by using the pesticide in their homes, people were exposed to the chemicals at these levels. The epidemiologists were observing changes that took place as people encountered the pesticides in their daily lives. Her one-story house was about 30 feet from the trees. And when the groves were sprayed, the fumes drifted in through the windows. Plus, one of her favorite ways to relax was to walk through the orange groves. She spent much of her free time during her pregnancy this way, wandering past the rows of perfectly spaced trees.

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But at the time, it didn't occur to her that she — or the baby growing inside of her — might suffer any lasting effects. And, indeed, it is residents of agricultural communities like Woodlake who tend to have the highest exposure. A documentary filmmaker who recently analyzed hair samples from six children in farming communities in California found that each tested positive for at least 50 different pesticides, including chlorpyrifos. In addition to being exposed to the residues on fruits and vegetables, as people throughout the country are, they are more likely to inhale chlorpyrifos that drifts in the air after spraying and drink the small amounts of it that sometimes seep into drinking water.

And she assumed that if a chemical were truly dangerous, farmers wouldn't be allowed to use it. She knew her son was struggling long before then. Alan is her second child and at just 8 months of age, he already seemed far more restless and difficult than her first. He would run at every opportunity and never seemed to settle down. By the time he was 4, he was clearly far less able to speak than his peers. He also had a hard time making friends. His many frustrations led to sudden outbursts.

She belongs to a group of 20 women who get together regularly to work on local issues. It's not easy. She stays indoors as much as possible and has stopped taking her walks through the orchards. And even as he struggles, he continues to risk exposure to the pesticide. Alan's school, Cutler Elementary, is a short distance from the fields — as everything is in Cutler. The science documenting that chlorpyrifos has long-term effects on children's brains had reached a critical mass by That year, Earthjustice sued the EPA on behalf of the Pesticide Action Network, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and farm worker groups, asking that it consider the long-term effects of chlorpyrifos and ban the chemical.

That suit turned out to be the first of many. The EPA failed to take action, however, so the environmental groups sued the agency again in , urging it to stop all uses of chlorpyrifos. In , when the EPA still hadn't banned the pesticide, the groups sued yet again, to no avail. And in September , seven years after they first filed their request, the advocates sued the EPA for a fourth time, again demanding that the agency revoke its approval of chlorpyrifos.

Such delays are unfortunately typical of the process of getting dangerous pesticides off the market, according to Patti Goldman, an Earthjustice attorney who has been working on the chlorpyrifos suit. Part of the reason for the glacial pace, according to Goldman, is the influence of pesticide manufacturers. Nevertheless, three months after the groups' last suit, in December , the EPA did what the smaller groups had been urging for years, acknowledging the serious risks chlorpyrifos posed to the developing brain. In a draft version of the risk assessment finalized in November, the agency highlighted Rauh's work showing an increased chance of developmental disorders, attention problems, working memory loss, and intelligence deficits in children who had been exposed to the pesticide prenatally.

Still, the EPA did not move to take chlorpyrifos off the market. By August , after the EPA requested yet another delay before issuing a final decision, the court that had been hearing the chlorpyrifos case reached the limit of its patience. Yet even with a clear timeline set, the EPA requested another extension. And, once it was granted, the agricultural lobby moved to prolong the process still further.

Apple Association, and CropLife America, an agribusiness trade association whose members include Dow, wrote to the court. By this point, Dow had enlisted Exponent , a science-for-hire group, to publish articles disputing the accumulating science on chlorpyrifos and arguing that there is no scientific reason to change the safety standards. Yet when those publications were excluded, the scientific literature overwhelmingly agreed about the harms of organophosphate pesticides, including chlorpyrifos.

Yet because the EPA cited Rauh's work most often in its decision to move forward on chlorpyrifos, the industry focused its attentions on the Columbia epidemiologist, dissecting her papers and criticizing the researcher herself. In addition to taking issue with its focus on humans, Dow has complained that the Columbia team has refused to make their data public. Dow has also made that charge in public comments to the EPA and in legal briefs submitted to the court. Dow AgroSciences is confident that authorized uses of chlorpyrifos products offer wide margins of protection for human health and safety, when used as directed.

But when I asked the Rauh herself whether she had shared her data with the EPA, she seemed familiar with and perplexed by the accusation. Everything has been done appropriately. Rauh said she and other researchers on her team have had several meetings with EPA officials.

Should I go to my son’s wedding? His mother poisoned everyone against me

They don't even want it. There is no contentiousness about it. They've seen it, it's been represented to them many, many times. As a result of new information gathered through an on-site meeting and other sources, EPA is no longer pursuing the request for the original analytic data file from CCCEH researchers.

The Columbia epidemiologist knows her work has drawn the ire of industry. Directed by epidemiologist Irva Hertz-Picciotto, CHARGE looks at both genetic and environmental factors in the development of autism and has helped establish links between autism and insufficient folic acid intake as well as the presence of metabolic conditions, such as diabetes, obesity, and hypertension, in mothers. In , the CHARGE researchers added pesticides to their list of environmental factors linked to the disease with a study of nearly 1, children, including with autism spectrum disorder.

Published in Environmental Health Perspectives in , the paper showed that the children born to women who lived near agricultural fields where pesticides were applied during their pregnancies have significantly higher rates of autism. Several organophosphates besides chlorpyrifos were associated with increased autism rates, as were another group of pesticides called pyrethroids.

And other kinds of developmental delay were also associated with the pesticides.

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But the link between autism and chlorpyrifos was the strongest. While the nationwide autism rate is now one in 68, for women who lived near fields where chlorpyrifos was sprayed during their second trimester, the chance of having a child with autism was closer to one in Hertz-Picciotto, who came to the MIND Medical Investigations of Neurodevelopmental Disorders Institute at the University of California—Davis from North Carolina in , was able to zero in on the connection because of California's records on both pesticide use and autism cases, which are both the most detailed in the nation.

After identifying the children with autism, she interviewed mothers about where they were living during their pregnancies and combined that information with the data on where pesticide spraying took place. Her efforts came at a delicate time. Since the idea that vaccines cause autism was first hotly debated and then discredited over the last decade, the public has come to distrust experts who focus on environmental causes of the developmental disorder. If you look at NIH funding [for research on the causes of autism], comparing genetics versus environmental factors, the ratio is 20 to 1.

But Hertz-Picciotto, whose previous work focused on the impact of lead on children, feels it's pointless to pit genetic and environmental factors against one another. Both contribute to the development of the disease roughly equally, she said, and even interact. Several studies have shown particular genetic variations increase the susceptibility of both children and adults to chlorpyrifos, for instance.

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And several different genetic and environmental occurrences may contribute to any one case of the disease. Maybe then the mom got an illness. Maybe she had a little flu.

And that also had some impact on the migration of cells getting to the right place in the brain. However, pesticides like many other chemicals, cross the placenta, and the fetus has fewer enzymes to detoxify chemicals than a child or adult has; and finally after a certain point, the insults pile up and you've gone past the ability — the biologic capacity — to adapt. Chlorpyrifos exposure is just one of several chance occurrences that may combine to cause autism.

But unlike an individual's genetic makeup, it's one that could be easily changed. That, according to Hertz-Picciotto, is the appeal of exploring the environmental causes of autism.

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A 2-year-old boy walks into a room carrying rat poison. Seeing blisters, his parents whisk him to the hospital emergency room, where he is hooked up to a cardiac monitor for several hours. Scenes like these — which were documented in a government report — have been playing out routinely in American homes for decades. The U. Environmental Protection Agency has known for a generation that kids have too-easy access to these super-toxic rat poisons.

Every year, more than 10, kids are getting hold of them, and virtually all of these calls to U. Black and Hispanic children living below the poverty line are disproportionately affected. For example, a study in New York found that 57 percent of children hospitalized for eating rat poison from to were African-American and 26 percent were Latino. Poisoned children can suffer internal bleeding, coma, anemia, nosebleeds, bleeding gums, bloody urine and bloody stools.

Authorities have known for decades that thousands of children each year are exposed — although, fortunately, most are not seriously injured. One is known as warfarin — the same chemical sold to people as Coumadin, a prescription blood thinner.