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A study by researchers showing troubling effects from certain pesticides (especially a class of fungicides) raises all sorts of questions: What is the long-term effect of chronic low doses of these fungicides in the foods we eat? How much of these chemicals are we getting exposed to? The Univ. of North Carolina researchers studied the effect of 294 chemicals (all common food-use pesticides or other environmental chemicals) on "mouse cortical neurons" (mouse brain cells). They found that one group of chemicals, which they referred to as "cluster 2", "mimics brain disorders" such as autism, advanced age, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's disease, and other neurodegenerative disorders. The chemicals (all pesticides, and mainly fungicides) causing these effects are: fenamidone, pyraclostrobin, famoxadone, trifloxystrobin, fenpyroximate, azoxystrobin, fluoxastrobin pyridaben and rotenone. Even though this study was done on mouse cortical neurons (in vitro), it is meaningful because of the similarities with human brain cells.

Very little is known about human exposure to these chemicals (how much is our exposure?) and their effects on humans, but the data suggest effects similar to that in neurological disorders. The researchers point out that many of the chemical residues in this cluster were found on conventionally raised foods, especially leafy green vegetables, and were detected at relatively high levels, especially pyraclostrobin. Most of these fungicides only came into use after 2000 and usage of these fungicides has been increasing in the U.S, with the exception of pyridaben (decreasing use) and rotenone (very low use). "These data suggest significant human exposure potential to many of the chemicals in cluster 2".

They point out that these fungicide residues have not been detected on organically produced foods (EPA and USDA data), which suggests a way to minimize exposure. None of these chemicals can be used by organic farmers in the U.S. Possible exposure is also from gardens and lawns (if used), contaminated water, and for farm workers in conventional agriculture. From Science Daily:

Could new class of fungicides play a role in autism, neurodegenerative diseases?

Scientists at the UNC School of Medicine have found a class of commonly used fungicides that produce gene expression changes similar to those in people with autism and neurodegenerative conditions, including Alzheimer's disease and Huntington's disease.

Mark Zylka, PhD, senior author of the study and associate professor of cell biology and physiology at UNC, and his team exposed mouse neurons to approximately 300 different chemicals.... "Based on RNA sequencing, we describe six groups of chemicals," Zylka said. "We found that chemicals within each group altered expression in a common manner. One of these groups of chemicals altered the levels of many of the same genes that are altered in the brains of people with autism or Alzheimer's disease." Chemicals in this group included the pesticides rotenone, pyridaben, and fenpyroximate, and a new class of fungicides that includes pyraclostrobin, trifloxystrobin, fenamidone, and famoxadone. Azoxystrobin, fluoxastrobin, and kresoxim-methyl are also in this fungicide class.

"We cannot say that these chemicals cause these conditions in people," Zylka cautioned. "Many additional studies will be needed to determine if any of these chemicals represent real risks to the human brain." Zylka, a member of the UNC Neuroscience Center, and his group found that these chemicals reduced the expression of genes involved in synaptic transmission -- the connections important for communication between neurons. If these genes are not expressed properly, then our brains cannot function normally. Also, these chemicals caused an elevated expression of genes associated with inflammation in the nervous system. This so-called neuroinflammation is commonly seen in autism and neurodegenerative conditions.

The researchers also found that these chemicals stimulated the production of free radicals -- particles that can damage the basic building blocks of cells and that have been implicated in a number of brain diseases. The chemicals also disrupted neuron microtubules. "Disrupting microtubules affects the function of synapses in mature neurons and can impair the movement of cells as the brain develops," Zylka said. "We know that deficits in neuron migration can lead to neurodevelopmental abnormalities. We have not yet evaluated whether these chemicals impair brain development in animal models or people."

Jeannie T. Lee, MD, PhD, professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, who was not involved in this research, said, "This is a very important study that should serve as a wake-up call to regulatory agencies and the general medical community. The work is timely and has wide-ranging implications not only for diseases like autism, Parkinson's, and cancer, but also for the health of future generations. I suspect that a number of these chemicals will turn out to have effects on transgenerational inheritance."

Zylka's group also analyzed information from the U.S. Geological Survey, which monitors countywide pesticide usage, as well as the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which test foodstuffs yearly for pesticide residues. Of the chemicals Zylka's team studied, only the usage of pyridaben has decreased since 2000. Rotenone use has remained the same since 2000. However, the use of all the fungicides in this group has increased dramatically over the past decade.

Indeed, a study from the Environmental Protection Agency found that pyraclostrobin is found on foods at levels that could potentially affect human biology, and another study linked pyraclostrobin usage to honeybee colony collapse disorder. The pesticide rotenone was previously implicated in Parkinson's disease through replicated animal experiments and through human epidemiological studies.....Previous work has also shown that a single dose of the fungicide trifloxystrobin reduced motor activity for several hours in female rats and for days in male rats. Disrupted motor function is a common symptom of Parkinson's disease and other neurological disorders. The related fungicide picoxystrobin impaired motor activity in rats at the lowest dose tested.

Zylka added, "The real tough question is: if you eat fruits, vegetables or cereals that contain these chemicals, do they get into your blood stream and at what concentration? That information doesn't exist." Also, given their presence on a variety of foodstuffs, might long term exposure to these chemicals -- even at low doses -- have a cumulative effect on the brain?

Zylka noted that conventionally grown leafy green vegetables such as lettuce, spinach, and kale have the highest levels of these fungicides. But due to each chemical's effectiveness at reducing fungal blights and rust, crop yields have increased and farmers are expanding their use of these chemicals to include many additional types of food crops.

Zylka's team hopes their research will encourage other scientists and regulatory agencies to take a closer look at these fungicides and follow up with epidemiological studies. "Virtually nothing is known about how these chemicals impact the developing or adult brain," Zylka said. "Yet these chemicals are being used at increasing levels on many of the foods we eat."

Applying fungicide to apple orchard. Credit: Univ. of Kentucky Agriculture Extension

Several studies have found that when children eat organic foods, especially fruits and vegetables, the amount of pesticides in their bodies declines significantly. Most organophosphorus pesticides have been phased out for residential use, but they are still widely used in agriculture, and so these pesticides are detected in both foods and people. This latest study looked at 20 children living in urban Oakland, Calif., and 20 in the agricultural community of Salinas, about 100 miles south. The children (between 3 - 6 years of age) ate a conventional diet for four days and an organic diet for seven days and then returned to conventional foods for five days. Their urine was collected daily and analyzed for pesticides, specifically by looking at pesticide metabolites (pesticide breakdown products).

Several classes of pesticides were frequently detected, for they were found in more than 72 percent of their urine samples, and 2,4-D was detected in 90% of samples. Of the six most frequently detected pesticides, two decreased by nearly 50 percent when children were on the organic diet, and levels of the common herbicide 2,4-D fell by 25 percent. Amounts of some pesticides were not significantly lower on the organic diet, but these were pesticides associated with use around homes for pest control, and not on foods (e.g., pyrethroids, diazinon, malathion). Bottom line: eat as many organic foods as possible to lower pesticide levels in the  body. To further reduce pesticide levels in the body - avoid pesticide use around the home and garden. Instead, use least toxic IPM (Integrated Pest Management) or organic pest control and organic gardening.

From Medical Xpress: Organic produce means reduced pesticides in kids, study shows

New research out of the Center for Environmental Research and Children's Health at UC Berkeley shows that switching from conventional to organic fruits and vegetables, even for just a few days, significantly reduces pesticide levels in children's bodies.

Twenty children in Oakland, California and 20 in Salinas, California, all 3 to 6 years old, had their urine tested for 16 days during the study. For the first four, they ate conventional produce, for the next seven their diet was organic, and then conventional for the last five. The levels of several pesticides that showed up in daily testing dropped by one-quarter to one-half during the organic stretch.

Excerpts from the original study from Environmental Health Perspectives: Effect of Organic Diet Intervention on Pesticide Exposures in Young Children Living in Low-Income Urban and Agricultural Communities

Recent organic diet intervention studies suggest that diet is a significant source of pesticide exposure in young children....We aimed to determine whether consuming an organic diet reduced urinary pesticide metabolite concentrations in 40 Mexican-American children, 3–6 years of age, living in California urban and agricultural communities. In 2006, we collected urine samples over 16 consecutive days from children who consumed conventionally grown food for 4 days, organic food for 7 days, and then conventionally grown food for 5 days. We measured 23 metabolites, reflecting potential exposure to organophosphorous (OP), pyrethroid, and other pesticides used in homes and agriculture.

For six metabolites with detection frequencies > 50%, adjusted geometric mean concentrations during the organic phase were generally lower for all children, and were significant for total dialkylphosphates (DAPs) and dimethyl DAPs (DMs; metabolites of OP insecticides) and 2,4-D (2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid, a herbicide), with reductions of 40%, 49%, and 25%, respectively (p < 0.01). Chemical-specific metabolite concentrations for several OP pesticides, pyrethroids, and herbicides were either infrequently detected and/or not significantly affected by diet.

Although most residential uses of many organophosphorus (OP) pesticides, including chlorpyrifos and diazinon, have been phased out since the mid-2000s due to potential health risks to children, they have continued to be used in agriculture [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) 2000, 2001]. The use of OP pesticides in agriculture could result in ingestion of residues in food, and recent studies suggest that dietary intake of produce and juices may account for a significant proportion of OP pesticide exposure in young children (Lu et al. 2006b, 2008; Morgan et al. 2005; Smith-Spangler et al. 2012; Wilson et al. 2003). Some of the best evidence supporting these findings includes results from diet intervention studies where significant reductions in excreted urinary pesticide metabolites were observed in young children when they consumed an organic diet (Lu et al. 2006b, 2008)....The lower urinary pesticide metabolite concentrations found in children eating organic diets is consistent with food residue monitoring data that has shown lower pesticide residue levels in organic versus conventionally grown food [Baker et al. 2002; U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) 2008].

Other factors associated with children’s cumulative pesticide exposures include socioeconomic status and location of residence. For example, low-income children may experience higher exposures to pesticides, particularly pyrethroids, because of poor housing quality and associated pest infestations and home pesticide use (Bradman et al. 2005a; Quirós-Alcalá et al. 2011; Whyatt et al. 2002). Children living in agricultural areas, compared with children living in non-agricultural suburban areas, are exposed to higher ambient and residential contamination from drift or volatilization from nearby agricultural applications and take-home residue by farmworking parents (Bradman et al. 2011; Harnly et al. 2009;Lu et al. 2000; Quirós-Alcalá et al. 2011).

Our finding that an organic diet was not associated with a significant reduction in pyrethroid metabolite (3-PBA) excretion for all children is not surprising given that these pesticides are primarily used in and around homes and not commonly applied to food crops; the finding is also consistent with Lu et al. (2006a), who reported that residential use is a more significant pyrethroid exposure factor for children than a conventional diet. 

Several studies indicate that dietary intake is a potential route of exposure for herbicides.....Overall, these studies indicate that 2,4-D may be present in food and support our finding that the lower levels observed in our population during the organic diet phase were attributable to lower dietary exposure.

In summary, consistent with other studies, urinary 2,4-D and two measures of OP pesticide exposure (total DMs and total DAP metabolites) were lower in children eating an organic diet. Other frequently detected metabolites for pyrethroids, diethyl OP pesticides, and the herbicide metolachlor were not significantly lower during the organic diet phase. Further, several compound-specific herbicide and OP pesticide metabolites had low detection frequencies, indicating that diet was not an important exposure source for these pesticides (e.g., diazinon, malathion) in this population. Last, independent of diet, most frequently detected metabolites were generally higher in Salinas compared with Oakland children, with DMs and metolachlor at or near significance (p = 0.06 and 0.03, respectively), suggesting additional sources of pesticide exposure for children living in agricultural communities.

There has been a lot of discussion in the last few years of our gut bacteria (hundreds of species), the microbiome (the community of microbes living within and on a person (gut, nasal cavities, mouth, sinuses, etc.), probiotics, the finding of a link between bacteria and some chronic diseases, and how the modern lifestyle and antibiotics are wiping out our beneficial gut microbes. I am frequently asked how one can improve or nurture the beneficial bacteria in our bodies.

While no one knows what exactly is the "best" or "healthiest" microbial composition of the gut, it does look like a diversity of bacteria is best (may make you healthier and more able to resist diseases). Research also suggests that the diversity and balance of bacteria living in the body can be changed and improved, and changes can occur very quickly. And that the microbial communities fluctuate for various reasons (illness, diet,etc.). Diet seems to be key to the health of your gut microbial community. Prebiotics feed the beneficial bacteria in the gut, probiotics are live beneficial bacteria, and synbiotics are a combination of prebiotics and probiotics. But don't despair - you can improve your gut microbial community starting now. The following are some practical tips, based on what scientific research currently knows.

SOME STEPS TO FEED AND NURTURE YOUR GUT MICROBES:

Eat a wide variety of foods, especially whole foods that are unprocessed or as minimally processed as possible. Eat everything in moderation.

Eat a lot of plant based foods: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, seeds, nuts, and legumes. Think of Michael Pollan's advice: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

Eat more washed and raw fruits and vegetables (lots of bacteria and fiber to feed and nurture the bacteria). Some every day would be good.

Eat more soluble and insoluble types of fiber, and increase how many servings you eat every day. A variety of  fiber foods every day, and several servings at each meal, is best. Think fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds. (See How Much Dietary Fiber Should We Eat? - also has a chart with high fiber foods, and Recent Studies Show Benefits of Dietary Fiber)

Eat as many organic foods as possible. There is much we don't yet know, and pesticides are like antibiotics - they kill off microbes, both good and bad. Somehow I think that lowering the levels in your body of pesticides (as measured in blood and urine) can only be beneficial. Also, organic foods don't contain added antibiotics and hormones. (Eat Organic Foods to Lower Pesticide Exposures).  But even if you can't or won't eat organic foods, it is still better to eat non-organic fruits, vegetables, and whole grains than to not eat them.

Eat some fermented foods such as kimchi and sauerkraut (they contain live bacteria), kefir, and yogurts with live bacteria. Eat other bacteria containing foods such as cheeses, and again a variety is best (different cheeses have different bacteria).

Try to avoid or eat less of mass-produced highly processed foods, fast-foods, preservatives, colors and dyes, additives, partially hydrogenated oils, and high-fructose corn syrup. Read all ingredient lists on labels, and even try to avoid as much as possible "natural flavors" (these are chemicals concocted in a lab and unnecessary). Even emulsifiers (which are very hard to avoid) are linked to inflammation and effects on gut bacteria.

Avoid the use of triclosan or other "sanitizers" in soaps and personal care products (e.g., deodorants). Triclosan promotes antibiotic resistance and also kills off beneficial bacteria. Wash with ordinary soap and water.

Avoid unnecessary antibiotics (antibiotics kill off bacteria, including beneficial bacteria).

Vaginal births are best - microbes from the birth canal populate the baby as it is being born. If one has a cesarean section, then one can immediately take a swab of microbes from the mother's vagina (e.g., using sterile gauze cloth) and swab it over the newborn baby. (See post discussing this research by Maria Gloria Dominguez Bello )

Breastfeeding is best - breastfeeding provides lots of beneficial microbes and oligosaccharides that appear to enrich good bacteria in the baby’s gut.

Live on a farm, or try to have a pet or two. Having pets, especially in the first year of life,  ups exposure to bacteria to help develop and strengthen the immune system, and prevent allergies. Pets such as dogs and cat expose humans to lots of bacteria.

Get regular exercise or physical activity. Professional athletes have more diverse gut bacterial community (considered beneficial) than sedentary people.

Can consider taking probiotics - whether in foods or supplements. They are generally considered beneficial, but not well studied, so much is unknown. The supplements are unregulated, and the ones available in stores may not be those that are most commonly found in healthy individuals. Research the specific bacteria before taking any supplements. Researchers themselves tend to stay away from probiotic supplements and focus on eating a variety of all the foods mentioned above (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, seeds, nuts, legumes, fermented foods) to feed and nurture beneficial bacteria.

Well DUH, of course eating organic foods lowers pesticide exposures. And yes, it can be measured in your body. So, as previous studies have shown, replacing regular fruits and vegetables (conventionally grown) with organic fruits and vegetables will lower your exposure to pesticides and the levels in your body. And why is this important? Research shows health effects from pesticides, so it is healthier for you to lower your pesticide exposures - whether from eating food, or from your house and your yard (breathing it in, getting it on skin).From Science Daily:

Organic food reduces pesticide exposure

While health-conscious individuals understand the benefits of eating fresh fruits and veggies, they may not be aware of the amount of pesticides they could be ingesting along with their vitamin C and fiber. A new study to be published in the Feb. 5 edition of Environmental Health Perspectives is among the first to predict a person's pesticide exposure based on information about their usual diet.

Curl and her colleagues analyzed the dietary exposure of nearly 4,500 people from six U.S. cities to organophosphates (OPs), the most common insecticides used on conventionally grown produce in the United States. OP pesticides are linked to a number of detrimental health effects, particularly among agricultural workers who are regularly exposed to the chemicals.

Results showed that among individuals eating similar amounts of fruits and vegetables, those who reported eating organic produce had significantly lower OP pesticide exposures than those consuming conventionally grown produce. In addition, consuming those conventionally grown foods typically treated with more of these pesticides during production, including apples, nectarines and peaches, was associated with significantly higher levels of exposure. "For most Americans, diet is the primary source of OP pesticide exposure," said Curl "The study suggests that by eating organically grown versions of those foods highest in pesticide residues, we can make a measurable difference in the levels of pesticides in our bodies."

The researchers were able to predict each participant's exposure to OP pesticides based on the amount and type of produce each participant typically ate and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's measurements of pesticide residue levels on those foods. The researchers then compared these predictions to pesticide metabolite levels measured in urine samples from a subset of 720 of these people.

"The next step is to use these exposure predictions to examine the relationship between dietary exposure to pesticides and health outcomes, including neurological and cognitive endpoints. We'll be able to do that in this same population of nearly 4,500 people," she said.

One way people can reduce their pesticide exposure, said Curl, is to eat organic versions of those foods that are listed on the Environmental Working Group's "Dirty Dozen" list, which ranks fruits and vegetables according to pesticide residue level.