The recent poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexi Navalny1 brings to mind the parallel histories of neurotoxic chemicals used in chemical warfare and as insecticides on crops.
Just before World War II, German scientists tasked with developing insecticides to protect crops wound up creating a chemical so toxic that it was repurposed and weaponized for use in war.2 More recently, Russian spy services have been known to poison dissidents with neurotoxic chemicals,3 including, perhaps, Navalny.
So, what’s the difference between chemical weapons/poisons and insecticides? Certainly, there is a wide range in toxicity, with insecticides being far less toxic than chemical weapons. The poison used against Navalny appears to have been a cholinesterase inhibitor,1 as are some insecticides, which also disrupt neurotransmitter pathways. This is an important pathway in nervous systems for both humans and insects. We’re not so different from bugs after all – we’re also vulnerable to harm from some chemicals used to control insects.
Studies showed particular concern for one of these chemicals that’s been used in agriculture – chlorpyrifos. Due to strong evidence of neurotoxicity to children,4 the EPA was on track to limit its use; however, the current administration’s EPA overruled those concerns to continue allowing farmers to treat crops with chlorpyrifos.5 It’s not only children who are also vulnerable to harm from pesticides, people with greater lifetime exposure have been shown to have a higher risk of getting Parkinson’s,6 including whether they were exposed to farming operations through farming or living nearby.
Rachel Carson said it best in her book, Silent Spring:
“How could intelligent beings seek to control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the entire environment and brought the threat of disease and death even to their own kind?”
What can you do to reduce your exposure to neurotoxic pesticides? Buying organic foods, not just produce, can lower your body burden of these toxic chemicals.7,8 I realize that this may not be affordable for everyone. One way to reduce your exposure with minimal cost is to use the Environmental Working Group’s resources to figure out which conventionally-grown produce to avoid (the Dirty Dozen) and which are less contaminated (the Clean Fifteen). And, if you can afford to do so, donate to EWG to thank them for doing this work.
Finally, some consider organic foods an elitist issue. But it’s truly an environmental justice issue. The people most exposed to toxic pesticides are those who work in the fields and live nearby. Buying organic helps reduce their exposure.
I hope that Navalny not only survives but recovers fully. And, that we shift production of our food supply away from use of toxic chemicals that not only contaminate our food but also local communities and the workers that are most exposed.
- Navalny Was Poisoned, But His Life Isn’t in Danger, German Hospital Says. NPR, August 24, 2020.
- Everts, S. 2016. The Nazi Origins of Deadly Nerve Gases. Chemical and Engineering News, volume 94.
- Groll, E. 2018. A Brief History of Attempted Russian Assassinations by Poison. Foreign Policy, March 9 issue.
- Rauh, V. et al. 2011. Seven-year Neurodevelopmental Scores and Prenatal Exposure to Chlorpyrifos, a Common Agricultural Pesticide. Environmental Health Perspectives, 119:1196-1201.
- EPA’s Wheeler Keeps Brain Damaging Pesticide Legal for Use on Foods Kids Eat. EWG.org, July 18, 2019.
- Gilbert, R. 2018. The Relationship Between Pesticides and Parkinson’s. American Parkinson Disease Association (apdaparkinson.org).
- Lu, C. et al. 2006. Organic diets significantly lower children’s dietary exposure to organophosphorus pesticides. Environmental Health Perspectives, 114:260-263.
- Hyland, C. et al. 2019. Organic diet intervention significantly reduces urinary pesticide levels in S. children and adults. Environmental Research, 171:568-575.