Pesticides commonly found on berries and other fruits may contribute to ADHD

A study in Pediatrics made a connection between exposure to organophosphates – pesticides used on berries and other fruit and vegetable crops – and Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in children.1

Organophosphates kill agricultural pests by acting as neurotoxins in insects.  Excessive exposure to organophosphates in humans are now  known to have toxic effects. Children are thought to be most vulnerable because the developing brain is especially susceptible to neurotoxic substances. Organophosphate exposure during fetal development and the first 2-3 years of life has previously been linked to detrimental effects on neurodevelopment in young children, including behavioral problems and deficits in memory and motor skills.1,2 High levels of organophosphate metabolites have also been found in children with leukemia.3

Since dysfunctional acetylcholine signaling is thought to be involved in ADHD, and organophosphates act by disrupting acetylcholine signaling, scientists decided to investigate a possible link between organophosphate exposure and ADHD. The researchers pulled data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (2000-2004) on urinary metabolites of organophosphates in children 8-15 years of age. 

Their findings showed that children with higher than median excretion of dimethyl thiophosphate, the most common of the organophosphate metabolites, had double the risk of ADHD compared to children with limits below detection. This result is alarming, because it suggests that levels of organophosphate exposure common among U.S. children are capable of promoting ADHD – not just the highest levels of exposure.1

How are children exposed to organophosphates?

Since organophosphates are commonly sprayed on many agricultural products (including corn, apples, pears, grapes, berries, and peaches), diet is the major source of organophosphate exposure in children.  Insecticides used in and around the home are also potential sources, but diet is thought to be predominant. Forty different organophosphate pesticides are currently in use in the U.S., and based on 2001 estimates 73 million pounds of organophosphates are used per year.1

In 2008, the USDA conducted tests that found malathion (one of the 40 organophosphate pesticides) residues in 28% of frozen blueberries, 25% of strawberries, and 19% of celery.1 The Environmental Working Group has found that commercial baby food is the predominant source of organophosphate exposure in infants 6-12 months of age. For young children, the most common culprits are apples, peaches, applesauce, popcorn, grapes, corn chips, and apple juice.4

What can you do to limit exposure?

A study that switched children from conventional to organic foods found a dramatic decrease in urinary metabolites of organophosphates.5  You can reduce your (and your children’s) exposure to organophosphates and other potentially harmful pesticides by buying organic produce whenever possible, especially when buying foods that are most heavily laden with pesticides – celery, strawberries, blueberries, peaches, apples, and grapes  rank among these high-pesticide crops. 

Read more about choosing produce wisely to minimize your family’s exposure to pesticides.



1. Bouchard MF, Bellinger DC, Wright RO, et al. Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and Urinary Metabolites of Organophosphate Pesticides. Pediatrics 2010;125:e1270–e1277

2. Harari R, Julvez J, Murata K, et al. Neurobehavioral Deficits and Increased Blood Pressure in School-Age Children Prenatally Exposed to Pesticides. Environ Health Perspect. 2010 Feb 25. [Epub ahead of print]

Jurewicz J, Hanke W. Prenatal and childhood exposure to pesticides and neurobehavioral development: review of epidemiological studies. Int J Occup Med Environ Health. 2008;21(2):121-32.

3. Fallon Nevada: FAQs: Organophosphates.

4. Environmental Working Group. Overexposed: Organophosphate Insecticides in Children’s Food.

5. Lu C, Toepel K, Irish R, et al. Organic diets significantly lower children's dietary exposure to organophosphorus pesticides. Environ Health Perspect. 2006 Feb;114(2):260-3.



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Comments (9) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Elijah Lynn - May 24, 2010 11:42 AM

Is there a test for organophosphates that I can get to see what my levels are?

I eat mostly organic now but this was not the case 5+ years ago.

One day we will look back and say, "Why did we ever eat food with chemicals on it? Especially neurotoxins!"

Mr Curious - May 24, 2010 3:33 PM

I hope this doesn't deter people from eating more fruits and veggies and feeding their kids more of them...

Interesting to note that the children in these studies were probably not on a plant based diet.

Nevertheless would pesticide exposure be noticeable from eating animal products who are fed grains which are also sprayed given you are careful not to eat the 'dirty dozen'?

Also would you agree that buying organic doesn't necessarily guarantee less exposure to pesticides in general (Organic are sprayed with different products)?

Organic produce are a better choice, but one also needs to consider the company, certifier, country of origin (if available), and if it's in season (if fresh), and if it's local. For example, is it better buying og berries in the winter which are shipped from Chile vs. og frozen berries from the US? I know I am going to freeze my own local og berries which are not known to be sprayed...

What about og apples? There is a difference in what's on them depending on where it comes from. In season in PA it's impossible to get them organic, but the IPM apples are so much tastier.

We have the power to make a change by voting with our wallets. So when we are careful about what we buy, we vote for pure and un-polluted produce, even though it means paying more immediately, saving / investing in the future to have better choices/ less disease...

Sarah Taylor - May 25, 2010 5:05 PM

ADHD, autism, asthma, excessive allergies ... none of these were a significant issue with my generation (I'm 38) and no one has officially determined the cause, although many have postulated it is something like chemicals on our food and in our air.

So, Deana and/or Dr. Fuhrman, now that this evidence is coming out about pesticides, do you think they might also be a cause for some of these other issues? Particularly autism? To me, autism seems a likely result of neurotoxic chemicals in our body, but I'm not a doctor!

Horsecrazy - May 26, 2010 2:23 PM

Another place to be aware of organophosphates is in pet products. I highly recommend you never buy Hartz shampoo products for your pets - they can be deadly.

It is so unfortunate that so many of our foods are so laden witn pesticides. We need to eat - and we need to eat lots of veggies and fruits! While they are prone to problems - not nearly as much as the problems created by eating and raising meat products.

Deana Ferreri - May 27, 2010 8:59 AM


Dr. Fuhrman sees autism as a multi-factorial condition caused primarily during pregnancy and before conception, not the result of after-birth insults.

Certainly chemicals may be contributory or causal, but not enough information is available to evaluate this question.

Carol Fishman - June 6, 2010 10:56 AM

If the berries you've purchase are not organic, what is the most effective way to cleanse of pesticides?

Note: Someone recommended to soak in vinegar and rinse well. Make sense?

Thank you.

Peter Wharton - June 20, 2010 10:53 PM

To Carol Fishman.

Sorry Carol, even if the pesticides could be washed off they are also absorbed into the flesh of the berries via the roots, so you are still eating pesticides. If you live in Europe suggest you buy fruit that is approved by Global GAP.

Don Stevens - July 25, 2010 10:53 PM

Years ago I saw a documentary about monkeys that were eating fruits and vegetables that were sprayed with pesticides. The monkey babies were being born with birth defects. The researchers then taught the monkeys to wash their food before eating and the birth defects ceased.
Recently an announcement came on one of the local radio stations stating that the pesticides sprayed on produce, left behind a residue that was so miniscule that one need not be concerned about it-that it was harmless.
I have chosen to not believe the news media because they do not check anything that is handed them. They are now censored so much in what they can air that they are groping for anything that they can use. As a result, drug companies, who provide about 80% of their income through adds, are not questioned when submitting material.
We know also that the drug companies will lie to protect themselves from loss of sales and profits. It is now a known fact that pesticides, no matter how little, have an adverse effect on humans. Pesticide related illnesses are cropping up continuously. I buy organic, there is a difference.

Jacqui Bergeron - March 8, 2011 11:31 AM

I eat a lot of berries every morning and a co-worker told me that because of the soft skin on berries, the pesticides are absorbed inside the berry. So I googled it to get more information and found that, because of the amount of berries I consume, I'm shocked that I have not had any illness. this is very dissapointing because I love berries....

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