Organochlorine Pesticide Linked to Behavioral Deficit in Infants

(Beyond Pesticides, May 29, 2008)

A study published in the May issue of Environmental Health Perspectives shows a link between prenatal exposure to the pesticide DDT and poor attention-related skills in early infancy. This study follows in a long line of recent studies associated with the negative health effects of DDT including: diabetes; non-Hodgkin lymphoma; breast cancer; and autism. Despite the fact that DDT was banned in the U.S. in 1972, concentrations of this toxic chemical’s major metabolite, DDE, have remained alarmingly high in many ecosystems, including the waters of Los Angeles County, the arctic, and even U.S. national parks. All studies documenting the health effects of DDT and chemicals in the same family, organochlorines, are particularly important not just for understanding the lingering effects of DDT from days past, but because many countries continue to employ DDT as a method in controlling mosquitoes that transmit malaria, despite its toxicity, weakening efficacy, and availability of safer alternatives. Other organochlorines are still registered for use in the U.S. The study looked at 788 mother-infant pairs who met several criteria, which included living in a town adjacent to a Superfund site in New Bedford, Massachusetts, a location with known organochlorine contamination. Cord blood samples were taken at birth from the infants (ill, pre-term, and infants born by Caesarian-section were excluded), and then tested for DDE (dichlorodiphenyl dichloroethene), as well as 51 individual congeners of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). The researchers then utilized the Neonatal Behavior Assessment Scale (NBAS) to measure infants’ alertness, consolability, self-quieting activity, hand-to-mouth facility, irritability, elicited and spontaneous activity, and motor maturity. The results show consistent inverse associations between the levels of cord serum of both PCBs and DDE and attention-related outcomes. Thus, the higher the exposure to the organochlorines, the poorer the infant’s performance.

Although DDT has historically received the most press of all the organochlorine pesticides, this family encompasses a number of pesticides still registered for use in the U.S.. These chemicals, while inducing various harmful health effects, have in common their persistence in the environment and human bodies. Earlier this year, during the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) comment period for the reregistration of endosulfan, an organochlorine used in the U.S. on cotton, tomatoes and other crops but banned in over 20 countries, many scientists and activists urged the agency to withdraw the registration of this toxic pesticide. Lindane, another organochlorine still registered for use as an anti-lice shampoo in the U.S., has been banned in California and is under consideration for severe restrictions in the Michigan Senate. Pentachlorophenol, an organochlorine used as a wood preservative mainly in utility poles in the U.S., is currently undergoing EPA’s reregistration process.

Public health advocates call for a complete phase-out of DDT and other organochlorine chemicals given evidence of their persistence and harmful effects on health and the environment.

TAKE ACTION: Pentachlorophenol
:The EPA comment period for the reregistration of pentachlorophenol is open. Send a comment to them and let them know that we need to stop using harmful organochlorine chemicals for our environment and our health. You can submit comments online at:, Docket ID EPA-HQ-OPP-2004-0402. If submitting by mail, send to Office of Pesticide Programs (OPP) Regulatory Public Docket (7502P), Environmental Protection Agency, 1200 Pennsylvania Ave., NW., Washington, DC 20460-0001.

Lindane: Follow the lead of California and Michigan and encourage your legislature to ban the use of lindane, an unnecessary and harmful chemical used in the treatment of lice.

Endosulfan: Although the comment period has officially closed for the reregistration of endosulfan, you can still send a letter to the EPA. See the letter sent by scientists, and public health advocates.