This blog is about ‘away’ – the place where things go when we don’t want them anymore, after we’ve finished with them and don’t want to deal with them anymore. We’ve found that Away is a big place, and one that keeps opening ever wider the more we look for it.
One ‘Away’ we’ve not explored much is our own bodies. Often toxins – like pesticides, artificial hormones, flame retardants, residues from pharmaceuticals – end up stored in our own bodies long after they’ve fulfilled their intended roles.
In late June the NIEHS (National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences) published a report linking prenatal pesticide exposure with autism. This is a study that was particularly relevant for agricultural workers and people who live near agricultural land as the study looked at children whose mothers lived within a mile of fields treated with organophosphate pesticides during their pregnancies.
The researchers found that these children were 60% more likely to develop an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) than children whose mothers did not live within a mile of a treated field. Further, children whose mothers lived within a mile of a field treated with chlorpyrifos, the most commonly used organophosphate pesticide, during their 3rd trimester were 3.3 times more likely to develop autism.
Organophosphates are the most commonly used pesticide class in the US, accounting for over 1/3rd of all pesticide application in the country, or approximately 33 million pounds annually. Though the EPA banned household use of most organophosphates in 2001, they are still applied for agricultural and commercial uses.
The rate of autism spectrum disorders has been on the rise in the US, jumping nearly 30% between 2012 and 2014. Although much of this increase has been ascribed to changes in diagnosing, this doesn’t seem to account for all of it. One recent study from Sweden suggested that environmental exposures may account for as much as half of the risk factors for autism.
As with most environmental toxicity studies, it’s very difficult to identify the exposure risk from one particular chemical. Most of the mothers who participated in the study lived near fields treated with multiple pesticides during their pregnancies. And many may have been exposed to additional autism risk factors. So this post isn’t to say that organophosphates cause autism – I don’t know that it’s possible to make such a strong link. What I do mean is that things don’t just vanish when they go ‘away’; they linger their impacts often continuing long after we’ve finished with them, perhaps even creeping into future generations. Long after these pesticides had finished their job of keeping insects at bay for one year’s crop, they made their presence known in children who hadn’t even been born yet.