It’s no secret that pesticides can adversely affect human health and the environment. And as talks of pesticides being found in our food, water, and in the air become more prominent, it poses an immediate threat to our health.
This begs the question: do pesticides build up in our body over time?
Recent research says yes, and that older people may have it worse.
How do pesticides enter the body?
Pesticides can enter you body in three common ways:
- Skin absorption
In the workplace, absorption through the skin is the most commmon route by which pesticides enter the bodies of farmers or agricultural workers. Exposure can happen while applying, mixing, or loading the pesticide.
Dermal exposure can potentially lead to immediate absorption after the pesticide comes in contact with the skin.
On the other hand, inhalation of chemicals through the lungs is possible when working with airborne droplets or mists, powders, and vapors.
Lastly, although ingestion is a less common route of exposure, it’s more likely to result in severe poisonings, illnesses, or even death.The most common cases of accidental ingestion of pesticides result from pesticides being removed from their original container to be transferred into an unlabeled bottle.
Similarly, you can also be at risk for pesticide exposure in more ways than one. For instance, it can depend on your location or the type of pesticide products that you use.
Mounting evidence also suggests that as we age, we are at a higher risk of absorbing pesticides into our body.
Pesticide Exposure in Older Adults
As people age, they become more susceptible to the health risks that can result from pesticide exposure. This is primarily because of some certain changes that naturally occur in our bodies when we grow older.
For instance, the skin becomes thinner with aging. And in older people, a thinner skin means pesticides may penetrate their skin more quickly. When compared to a younger person, an older adult may absorb more of a pesticide, even though the amount of pesticide they came in contact with is just the same.
Moreover, the thinner skin of older people also sustains more damage when pesticides get through their skin. This easily damaged skin, however, is also slower in showing signs of being irritated.
Due to this delayed reaction of the skin, it may take longer for older people to realize they have been exposed to harmful chemicals.
Another factor that increases an older person’s risk of absorbing pesticides is the natural changes in the brain and nervous system. As we age, our nervous sytem undergoes changes that may affect our awareness with our surroundings.
Nerve cells may pass messages more slowly than in the past. This ultimately affects an older person’s response time to a certain situation. For instance, it may take them longer to be aware that they have been exposed to pesticides.
As a result, they may not immediately realize that they need to wash off any harmful chemicals they came into contact with.
Aging and Pesticide Accumulation in the Body
Just like how aging can affect how the body absorbs pesticides, it can also play a role in storing these chemicals in our system.
As we grow old, we gain body fat. The body tends to store pesticides in fat before the chemicals are excreted via the liver or kidneys.
Pesticides that are stored in fat can accumulate in large amounts in the bodies of older people. As a result, they may experience adverse health effects from pesticide exposures that may not be harmful for younger people.
Furthermore, as we age, the number of filtering units in the kidneys decreases. Add to this the fact that the body also stores chemicals in the blood and other body fluids, and these pesticides can potentially remain longer in older adults’ bodies when aging kidneys aren’t that effective in getting rid of them anymore.
Pesticides Can Build Up in Fat Tissue
A recent study concluded that chemical pesticides can build up in bodies with high fat content.
In a scientific article published in Marine Pollution Bulletin, researchers from the Far Eastern Federal University (FEFU) presented the findings of a study of organochlorine pesticide (OCP) build-up in the bodies of seabirds and marine mammals living in the Sea of Okhotsk and the Bering Sea.
Organochlorine pesticides are synthetic pesticides used extensively all over the world. Organochlorine chemicals are known for their high toxicity, long decay period, and their ability to accumulate in fatty tissues of living bodies.
One of the most widely known OCPs is dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane or DDT, an insecticide that was widely used during World War II. DDT and other related substances persist for a long time in the environment. In 1972, the use of DDT was discontinued in the United States due to its potential health risks to humans.
This proves that even though pesticides are designed to target specific organisms, it can also cause harm to non-target species, including animals, plants, and even humans.
Certain pesticides have become topics of great debates among experts in recent years. One of them is Paraquat.
Paraquat is a popular herbicide that’s been around for more than 60 years now. Recent studies link this weed killer to an increased risk of developing Parkinson’s disease.
Paraquat lawsuits have already been filed in behalf of farmers and agricultural workers who subsequently developed Parkinson’s after being exposed to the chemical compound.
Study of OCP Build-Up in Mammals
In the study spearheaded by Vasiliy Tsygankov, head of Laboratory of Environmental Biotechnology, the researchers concluded that the higher the level of an animal in the food chain, the more toxins can build up in its body.
The study also points out that species with longer life cycles tend to accumulate more pesticides than those who have shorter life spans. For instance, there are low OCP levels in the bodies of small fishes. However, higher pesticide levels were found in mammals, seabirds, and carnivores.
The bad news?
The amounts of organochlorine pesticides in the research have been found even in mammals that live in pesticide-free settings. The pesticide level in marine organisms plays an important role in determining global environmental status. By studying OCP accumulations in marine creatures, scientists can gauge the level of pesticide pollution in the ocean.
“Organochlorine pesticides are a serious threat for people, and the situation worsens with time. For example, due to the actions of China and India, the concentration of OCP in the Indian Ocean is constantly growing. The USA also produce pesticides for sale,” says Kirill Golokhvast, provost for research at FEFU and Doctor of Biology.
Concerns Over Pesticide Residue
Individuals working closely with pesticides are not the only ones who should be concerned of pesticide exposure.
A certain study that investigated the link between limb birth defects and pesticide exposure found that cases of limb defects increased in areas within 500 meters from a nearby cornfield where pesticides are being applied.
However, aside from individuals living near agricultural settings, consumers who buy fruits and vegetables from stores have also become increasingly wary of the potential amount of pesticides in their food.
Pesticide residues can be found in a great deal of products, from fruits to vegetables to wine and fruit juices, among others. In most cases, however, the amount of pesticide residue in these foods is well below the safety limit set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The Problem with Safety Limits
There are some problems pointed out by critics of the safety limits set by the EPA. For instance, these safe limits are only determined for individual pesticides. However, at times, multiple chemical pesticides are used in foods. Therefore, these pre-determined safety limits may undermine the potential health risks that may exist in reality when more than one chemical from different pesticides are present in the same food.
Moreover, some studies also pointed out that regulatory agencies that set pesticide safety limits like the EPA and FDA often rely on studies with either incomplete or inconsistent data. The studies where these agencies also often base their data on were found to be industry-funded.
Some issues with industry-funded research is they tend to be misleading at times and they have a higher probability of bias.
With that said, most experts and environmental groups recommend a better monitoring of the adverse health effects of pesticides especially in people who work closely with these chemicals. This would make way for a better establishment of regulations and safety limits.
Is organic food safer?
The widespread use of synthetic pesticides almost make the avoidance of pesticides in food impossible. But there’s an alternative that other consumers prefer — buying organic foods.
Organic produce are grown in line with government guidelines. However, debates are still ongoing about whether it’s really safer per se to go organic. Studies also have conflicting findings on this topic.
For instance, a study involving 4,400 adults found that even individuals who only moderately consume organic foods had lower levels of chemical pesticides in their urine. On the other hand, some experts argue that organic pesticides also have their own negative impact on the environment.
Furthermore, some organic chemical compounds don’t undergo tests that determine their toxic potential. The EPA only applies these tests to synthetic pesticides under the Reduced Risk Program.
Health Effects of Pesticides
The risk of a pesticide mainly depends on two things: exposure and toxicity.
Exposure means the amount of chemical you get in or on your body, while toxicity indicates how poisonous the pesticide is to humans and the environment.
This means that even products with low toxicity can potentially be dangerous if the exposure is high enough. Pesticides also contain more than one ingredient, and each one may have a different toxic effect.
In general, however, pesticides have been linked to a plethora of adverse health effects, including:
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Birth defects
- Developmental and learning disorders
- Parkinson’s disease
- Reproductive health effects
Pesticide poisoning is another risk that comes with the use of such chemicals. Symptoms of poisoning may range from mild irritation in the exposed body part to confusion, weakness, coma, and even death.
Unfortunately, these symptoms may mimic the signs of other diseases. Not all healthcare professionals are also well-informed about pesticide-related illnesses. As a result, cases of pesticide poisoning are often underreported.
The Bottom Line
Studies have found that pesticides can accumulate in the body over time. These chemicals are often stored in our body fat. Large quantities of pesticides can build up in fatty tissues, especially in older people.
This is mainly because of the natural changes that many systems in our body undergo when we age. As a result, older people may suffer from the potential health risks of pesticides, even when exposed to the same amount of chemical that may not be harmful to younger people.