Four Seasons Pediatrics

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Pesticides ADHD and Organic Foods

You may have read or heard about a recent study on ADHD and pesticides in the news.   This study was based on data on 1139 children, aged 8 to 15 years, from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (2000-2004). 148 children were diagnosed with ADHD or on medication for ADHD.   Of those who had detectable levels of the most common pesticide, the relative risk of ADHD was almost 2 times higher.  

Dr. Miller & Dr Elmer Comment:  It is hard to draw a firm conclusion from this one study.   On one hand, we can begin to think that higher exposure to pesticides leads to behaviors that look like ADHD.   In particular, organophosphate pesticides disrupt the activity of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter (a brain chemical) also implicated in ADHD.  If this is true, it is similar to what can happen with lead exposure.  On the other hand, it is possible that children with ADHD may engage in more behaviors that cause higher ingestion of pesticides (e.g. they may not wash their fruit off before eating it, or may walk through properties with signs stating that a recent application of a pesticide was applied).  

While we need more information to add to this study (done on 1 spot urine in the children studied), we can all agree that less pesticide exposure is preferable.  Like many things, an approach to pesticides and organic foods require a balance.    For example, according to a 2008 US report, detectable concentrations of the organophosphate malathion were found in 28% of frozen blueberry samples, 25% of strawberry samples, and 19% of celery samples.  We do need to remember that most testing of fruits and vegetables is done WITHOUT washing.

Meanwhile the growth of organic foods encourages us to jump on this bandwagon.  But organic is a relative term.  Even the USDA has determined that the organic movement represents a spectrum of practices, attitudes, and philosophies. On the one hand are those organic practitioners who would not use chemical fertilizers or pesticides under any circumstances. These producers hold rigidly to their purist philosophy.  At the other end of the spectrum, organic farmers espouse a more flexible approach. While striving to avoid the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, these practitioners do not rule them out entirely.  Instead, when absolutely necessary, some fertilizers and also herbicides are very selectively and sparingly used as a second line of defense. Nevertheless, these farmers, too, consider themselves to be organic farmers.

For many shoppers, the decision often comes down to money.  You may pay up to 100% more for organic for some foods.   Organics are one of the fastest-growing categories in the food business and are becoming big business.    But not all organic-labeled products offer added health value.   A recent Consumer Reports Health article recommended that it’s worth paying more for organic for the following:

  • apples
  • peaches
  • spinach
  • milk
  • beef

This is to avoid chemicals found in the conventionally produced versions of those items.

Some foods that have undetectable levels of pesticides are:

  • asparagus
  • broccoli
  • seafood which has labels that are often misleading.

See the following for excerpts of the report of which foods to consider buying organic:


Fruits and Vegetables to consider: Apples, bell peppers, celery, cherries, imported grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, potatoes, red raspberries, spinach, and strawberries.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s own lab testing reveals that even after washing, some fruits and vegetables consistently carry much higher levels of pesticide residue than others. Based on an analysis of more than 100,000 U.S. government pesticide test results, researchers at the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a research and advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C., have developed the “dirty dozen” fruits and vegetables, above, that they say you should always buy organic if possible because their conventionally grown counterparts tend to be laden with pesticides.   The “Dirty Dozen” list includes: celery, peaches, strawberries, apples, blueberries, nectarines, bell peppers, spinach (includes kale and collard greens), cherries, potatoes, grapes and lettuce.

Among fruits, nectarines had the highest percentage testing positive for pesticide residue. Peaches and red raspberries had the most pesticides (nine) on a single sample. Among vegetables, celery and spinach most often carried pesticides, with spinach having the highest number (10) on a single sample. (For more information on pesticide levels for other types of produce, go to .)
Did you know most of the food Americans eat travels over 1500 miles to reach the plate?  When you buy organic produce in season at a farmer’s market or directly from local providers, however, you might avoid paying a premium at all.  Consider buying a share in a local CSA also known as Community Supported Agriculture (see this link for more information)

Other foods to consider: Meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy.

At least think about milk that is free of supplemental hormones and antibiotics, which have been linked to increased antibacterial resistance in humans.

What about – Baby food?  Children’s developing bodies are especially vulnerable to toxins and they may be at risk of higher exposure. Baby food is often made up of condensed fruits or vegetables, potentially concentrating pesticide residues. What you’ll pay varies widely by store.  Consider making your own baby food, you will know which foods you used to make it

Foods where that is rare evidence of pesticides in testing include the following:

Asparagus, avocados, bananas, broccoli, cauliflower, sweet corn, kiwi, mangos, onions, papaya, pineapples, and sweet peas.
Breads, oils, potato chips, pasta, cereals, and other packaged foods, such as canned or dried fruit and vegetables. 

The group has also released a list of “Clean 15″ foods that had the least chemical residue. Most of them have skin that are taken off before consumption. They include: onions, avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, mango, sweet peas, asparagus, kiwi, cabbage, eggplant, cantaloupe, watermelon, grapefruit, sweet potatoes and sweet onions.

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