Consumers should consider going organic because pesticides on foods are far more dangerous than was thought, causing damage to the human brain, a major study suggests.
The research, published by the European Parliament, warns of the “very high costs” of current levels of exposure to pesticides – especially for children and pregnant women.
It could result in new limits on pesticide levels or changes to labelling of foodstuffs, under EU laws which require the UK to review its policies by next year.
The landmark study suggests that the damage caused by pesticides across the EU amounts to at least £125bn a year, based on the loss of lifetime income from such damage.
The report warns of increasing evidence that residues from insecticides are damaging the brain, and reducing the IQ of the population. And it raises concerns that the chemicals could also cause cancer and damage to the reproductive system.
The research, commissioned by the European Parliament, is a review of existing scientific evidence about the impact of organic food on human health.
It says previous attempts to assess the impact of pesticides have disregarded too much of the research, raising concerns that regulation of insecticides has been inadequate.
The study was carried out by the parliament’s Scientific Foresight Unit, led by the Swedish University of Agricultural Scientists.
“At least 100 different pesticides are known to cause adverse neurological effects in adults, and all of these substances must therefore be suspected of being capable of damaging developing brains as well,” the report states.
“Such adverse effects are likely to be lasting and one main outcome is cognitive deficits, often expressed in terms of losses of IQ points. The combined evidence suggests that current exposures to certain pesticides in the EU may cost at least € 125 billion per year, as calculated from the loss of lifetime income due to the lower IQs associated with prenatal exposure.”
It goes on to describe the calculation as “almost certainly” an underestimate as it does not consider the possible contribution made by pesticides to conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, diabetes and certain types of cancer.
The researchers recommend limiting exposure to non-organic fruit and vegetables – and say particular care should be taken by pregnant women and children.
“The evidence reviewed in this report shows that a decreased exposure from the general population is desirable from a human health perspective in light of the findings from epidemiological studies that indicate very high costs of current levels of pesticide exposures,” the report says.
Previous attempts to assess the risks have not taken proper account of epidemiological studies, which look at the health of whole populations, instead of just limiting themselves to scientific trials, it suggests.
“Of major concern, these risk assessments disregard evidence from epidemiological studies that show negative effects of low-level exposure to organophosphate insecticides on children’s cognitive development, despite the high costs of IQ losses to society,” it states.
And it raises concerns that risk assessment of pesticides is inadequate, failing to properly examine any increased risk of cancer, as well as impacts on the body’s hormones and nervous system.
“There are concerns that this risk assessment is inadequate at addressing mixed exposures, specifically for carcinogenic effects as well as endocrine-disrupting effects and neurotoxicity. Furthermore, there are concerns that test protocols lag behind independent science studies from independent science, are not fully considered and data gaps are accepted too readily,” the authors warn.
Lead author, Assistant Professor Axel Mie said: “Several practices in organic agriculture, in particular the low use of pesticides and antibiotics, offer benefits for human health”.
“Policymakers should support the use of such practices and their introduction in conventional agriculture, and make sure that organic agriculture continues to serve as a laboratory for the development of future healthy food systems.”
Under an EU Directive on the sustainable use of pesticides, member states are required to public a national plan to reduce risks from pesticides every five years, with the UK required to update its restrictions by 2018.
US studies have shown women’s exposure to pesticides during pregnancy, measured through urine samples, were associated with negative impacts on their children’s IQ and neurobehavioral development. A study looking at structural brain growth found the grey matter was thinner in children whose mothers had high exposure to organophosphates, which are used widely in pesticides.
Peter Melchett, Soil Association policy director said: “This report is great for organic farmers and everyone who eats organic food. Organic food sales have been growing strongly for five years, and a key reason that people buy organic food sales is that they feel it is better for them and their family – that is why more than half the baby food sold in the UK is organic. This new, independent, scientific review confirms people are right.”
Dr Chris Hartfield, senior regulatory affairs adviser at the National Farmers Union, said: “ Pesticides are among the most stringently regulated products in the world, with rigorous independent safety assessments and scientific studies carried out to ensure that any residues that remain on food pose no risk to people. It is important to point out that this European Parliament report makes it quite clear that our understanding in these areas is limited, the evidence is not conclusive, and the significance of the findings for public safety is unclear.”