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Children exposed in the womb to substantial levels of neurotoxic pesticides have somewhat lower IQs by the time they enter school than do kids with virtually no exposure. A trio of studies screened women for compounds in blood or urine that mark exposure to organophosphate pesticides such as chlorpyrifos, diazinon and malathion.
These bug killers, which can cross the human placenta, work by inhibiting brain-signaling compounds. Although the pesticides’ residential use was phased out in 2000, spraying on farm fields remains legal.
Among the California families, the average IQ for the 20 percent of children with the highest prenatal organophosphate exposure was seven points lower compared with the least-exposed group.
Another observation from her study: Children exhibited bigger IQ deficits if they came from homes that had been treated with organophosphates while their moms were pregnant — even if the women’s urine at the time wasn’t higher in breakdown products than that of parents whose kids had more normal cognitive scores. Organophosphate breakdown products aren’t toxic, just a putative marker of exposure to the toxic parent pesticide, Engel notes. So the presence of organophosphate breakdown products in mothers of the less-affected kids may reflect the mother’s exposure primarily to breakdown products, not the parent organophosphates.
Each IQ-point drop will add up to extra costs in lost earnings over an individual’s lifetime, he says — and even, potentially, to higher education and other costs, to deal with behavioral and learning problems that may occur during childhood.
“There was an amazing degree of consistency in the findings across all three studies,” notes Bruce Lanphear of Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. And that’s concerning, he says, because a drop of seven IQ points “is a big deal. In fact, half of seven IQ points would be a big deal, especially when you see this across a population.”