Harvard Researcher Suggests Organic is Worth the Extra Money

A new study by researchers at Harvard School of Public Health found that women undergoing infertility treatment who ate fruits and vegetables with high-pesticide residues were less likely to become pregnant and had a higher risk of pregnancy loss.

There have been concerns for some time that exposure to low doses of pesticides through diet, such as those that we observed in this study, may have adverse health effects, especially in susceptible populations such as pregnant women and their fetus, and on children. Our study provides evidence that this concern is not unwarranted. – Dr. Yu-Han Chiu, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and first author of the study

The researchers asked 325 women between the ages of 18 and 45 receiving infertility treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital to complete a diet questionnaire. They then analyzed the women’s level of pesticide exposure based on the fruit and vegetables they ate each day. The pesticide data the researchers relied on for the study came from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Pesticide Data Program.

Women who ate at least two servings of fruit and vegetables with high-pesticide residues a day were 18% less likely to get pregnant and 26% less likely to give birth to a live baby than women who ate one serving. When the researchers swapped one high-pesticide fruit or vegetable a day for a low-pesticide one, they found 79% higher odds of pregnancy and 88% higher odds of a live birth.

A reasonable choice based on these findings is to consume low-pesticide-residue fruits and vegetables instead of high-pesticide-residue ones. Another option is to go organic for the fruits and vegetables known to contain high pesticide residues. – Dr. Yu-Han Chiu

The Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen guide ranks the 12 foods in the produce section with the highest levels of pesticide residue. This year strawberries topped the list, and apples weren’t too far behind. Use the EWG’s Clean 15 guide to find produce with the least amount of pesticide residue. For a more complete guide to pesticide levels in the produce section, try the Pesticide Action Network’s (PAN)  “What’s on my food?” database.

Dr. Jorge Chavarro, an associate professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health and senior author of the study, was surprised by the findings, which were published in the journal JAMA International Medicine.

Going into the study, I was positive that we would find absolutely no relation between exposure to pesticide residues in fruits and vegetables and adverse reproductive outcomes. While I think we need more studies to confirm or refute our findings, I am now more willing to pay the extra money for organic apples and strawberries than I was when we started this project.

Dr. Philip Landrigan, dean for global health and professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, wrote an editorial that appeared with the study.

The observations made in this study send a warning that our current laissez-faire attitude toward the regulation of pesticides is failing us.We need to overcome the strident objections of the pesticide manufacturing industry, recognize the hidden costs of deregulation, and strengthen requirements for both premarket testing of new pesticides, as well as postmarketing surveillance of exposed populations — exactly as we do for another class of potent, biologically active molecules — drugs.

The trade association CropLife International represents manufacturers of pesticides. Janet Collins is Executive Vice President of Science and Regulatory Affairs. She released this written statement:

The JAMA research publication does not show a direct link between pesticide residue intake and pregnancy outcome, as the authors state. This is a hypothesis generating study, and as the authors recommend, we agree that before a definitive outcome can be established the issues require further study.

The Harvard study is consistent with animal studies that have shown a correlation between low-dose pesticide exposure and difficulty sustaining a pregnancy. But the study is the first of its kind on humans, and more studies need to be done to confirm the researcher’s findings.

CNN – “Study ties pesticides in food to reduced fertility in women”
Time – “Pesticides in Produce Linked to Women Not Getting Pregnant with IVF”

Feature image courtesy of BanksPhotos @iStock

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