As if we didn’t have enough threats to brain health already in our lives, a report on the growing use of certain chemicals on crops shows they endanger the neurons that keep our thoughts and memories intact.
These agricultural chemicals are running off into our water, and their residues may be clinging to some of those fruits and vegetables you had at dinner last night.
No, I’m not even talking about the weed killer Roundup(c) (glyphosate) – the poison that the chemical company Monsanto sells to farmers and gardeners around the world — and which has been labeled “probably carcinogenic to humans” by the World Health Organization.1
My focus today is on fungicides farmers are spraying on their fields. Chemical companies have discovered that they can now market these poisons to farmers and profit off the need to keep farm fields clear of blights and rust – forms of fungal infections that can damage crops.
While the agricultural market for fungicides was about $8 billion back in 2005, by 2017 sales are expected to top $21 billion.2
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Long-term Safety is Unknown
To those of us who care about our health, the big concern is the potential effect of this class of chemicals on the brain and nervous system. Although fungicides must undergo some limited testing before they can be sold to the public, the pre-marketing studies don’t adequately examine all of their possible health effects on consumers and other living things. For sure, the studies don’t look at long term effects from years or decades of exposure.
According to researchers at the University of North Carolina who have done their own lab tests, these fungicides may be causing some scary effects on brain function.3
A Problem for Your Neurons
The UNC researchers tested the chemicals to see how they changed the expression of genes in neurons. If these genes are misregulated, neurons fail to behave properly, leading to detrimental changes in how these brain cells operate.
“We found that chemicals within each (fungicide and pesticide) group altered expression in a common manner,” warns researcher Mark Zylka, who’s an associate professor at UNC. “One of these groups of chemicals (the fungicides) altered the levels of many of the same genes that are altered in the brains of people with autism or Alzheimer’s disease.”
The chemicals that Prof. Zylka found to be harmful include the pesticides fenpyroximate, pyridaben and rotenone. The fungicides that interfere with gene expression in neurons include fluoxastrobin, famoxadone, azoxystrobin, fenamidone, pyraclostrobin, trifloxystrobin and kresoxim-methyl.
Of course, those complicated chemical names probably mean nothing to you, but the fungicides generally kill fungi by interfering with their mitochondria – the organelles in cells that produce energy.
Pyraclostrobin is marketed by the company BASF as Headline(c) – which BASF claims is the “nation’s leading fungicide.”4
Looking for the Smoking Gun
While no one has definitively proven that these fungicides are causing brain problems in people, strong evidence points that way.
“(Zylka’s research) is a very important study that should serve as a wake-up call to regulatory agencies and the general medical community,” says Jeannie T. Lee, who teaches genetics at Harvard Medical School.
Fungicide is in Your Food
Prof. Zylka says that if you aren’t eating organic vegetables, your biggest exposure to fungicide residues is in leafy green vegetables like lettuce, spinach, and kale.
“Virtually nothing is known about how these chemicals impact the developing or adult brain,” he says. “Yet these chemicals are being used at increasing levels on many of the foods we eat.”
To avoid traces of these chemicals, I stick to organic food which is grown without these poisons. There was a time when I thought it was hopeless to avoid food chemicals (also expensive and inconvenient.) I figured, “Everybody dies of something eventually. Not much point in worrying about it.”
Then, after years of reading about and learning about pesticide and herbicide residues in food, I decided, “Yeah, we all have to die but I don’t have to hurry the process along.” What’s more, I don’t like being sick and I can’t see deliberately doing things to bring on the misery. Most of my diet now consists of organic food.