Summertime Blues: Pesticide-Laden Strawberries And Your Health

Pesticide spraying at a farm on the North Shore of Massachusetts. (Photo: Alexandra Morris)

Pesticide spraying at a farm on the North Shore of Massachusetts. (Photo: Alexandra Morris)

By Alexandra Morris

This weekend marks the start of the summer season, but I can’t help dwelling on the downside. Each year at this time, crowds from urban Boston descend on the farm next to my parents’ house on the North Shore in Mass. to pick their own strawberries – fresh, sweet, ripe…and coated with toxins.

While the farm staff warns visitors to wash the fruit before eating it, many choose to snack along the way (one group was caught sitting in the strawberry field with a can of “Reddi-Whip” in hand). After all, what’s the cost of a few unwashed strawberries?

Unfortunately, when it comes to our health, the cost may be fairly high.

Over the years, researchers have documented the bad effects of pesticide exposure on human health. Recently, though, and at a forum this week at Harvard, there’s been increased attention on the links between pesticides and neurodegenerative diseases, notably Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

In a study published earlier this year in the journal Neurology, researchers from UCLA identified the way in which certain pesticides can increase the risk of Parkinson’s disease. They also found that people with a common genetic variant are even more sensitive to these pesticides – they are two to five times more likely to develop Parkinson’s if exposed.

“Once you identify the toxicity of these things, getting rid of the bad pesticides…would be a goal, not just for the people that live in the area, but for the workers that use it,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Jeff Bronstein, a professor of neurology at UCLA.

In a separate report out of Rutgers University, published in JAMA Neurology, researchers found that exposure to the pesticide DDT may increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. In the study, researchers found that levels of DDE, the chemical compound that develops when DDT breaks down, were higher in the blood of Alzheimer’s patients compared to those without the disease.

And the effects go beyond the risk of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Marc Weisskopf, an associate professor of environmental and occupational epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, who spoke at the Harvard forum, said there is evidence that pesticides contribute to a host of neurodevelopmental disorders as well, from ADHD and developmental disorders to lowered cognitive performance. Continue reading

Goal-Oriented Care: When Patients Decide What ‘Better’ Feels Like

Getting to the heart of "patient-centered" care. (University of Michigan MSIS/flickr)

There’s an important commentary in today’s New England Journal Of Medicine that gets to the heart of the sometimes murky notion of “patient-centered care” a buzzword of medicine these days.

The piece touts the virtues of goal-oriented care, that is, when patients, rather than doctors or researchers, express their own ideas about what ‘better’ health outcomes might be given their medical condition and life priorities. One example: A patient with Parkinson’s might feel that it’s more important to attend a grandchild’s graduation than to reduce his tremors, and so focus on that goal as a priority.

The authors, David B. Reuben, M.D., Division of Geriatrics, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and Mary E. Tinetti, M.D, Department of Medicine, Yale School of Medicine, elaborate:

…a person with Parkinson’s disease may establish goals for symptoms, such as decreased rigidity and no falls; goals for functional status, such as the ability to get to the bathroom without assistance although requiring a walker; and goals for social function, such as the ability to use the Internet to communicate with a grandson at college and the ability to go to church. However, the patient may not be aiming to reduce tremor, walk without a walker, or continue to work for pay. Continue reading