''Wonder'' Chemicals Linked to Alzheimer's

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My Grandmother, who has Alzheimer’s, turned 93 on Valentine’s Day. My grandparents loved fresh, whole foods – they gardened, cooked and bought in bulk to preserve food for the winter. My grandmother picked blackberries along the sides of roads by their house and they bought peaches from a farmer in the town next to theirs.

When I think about how many unregulated chemicals my grandmother was probably exposed to in her life time, it scares me.

Although she was born in 1918, before the widespread use of toxic pesticides and fertilizers, she lived through the worst starting in the 40s. It wasn’t until the late 60s that the detrimental effects of pesticides were recognized, although still not strictly regulated.

Now, when I visit my grandmother, I don’t know if she knows who I am. She is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s and doesn’t really talk. She needs constant care for everything – day and night. She can’t teach me how to garden or preserve foods, a task she was content to do her whole life. She can’t pass on favorite recipes that she made for my yearly summer visits in Oregon. She can’t answer my quilting questions or help me with my knitting projects. I'll never know what “wonder” chemicals my grandparents were sold to spray on their own garden with the promise of no pests or disease and more abundant crops and what link there might be to her current state.

The thought that the toxic environment we have created might contribute to neurological disorders in so many people is appalling. It makes me wonder if politicians who approve their continued use have ever personally dealt with a disease like Alzheimer’s. It’s hard to believe that they haven’t. Statistics say that over 5 million people currently have the disease, and it is expected that 10 million baby boomers will die from or with Alzheimer’s.

It was disheartening when last December, ex-Governor Schwarzenegger and the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) approved methyl iodide as a soil fumigant pesticide in agriculture. Methyl iodide is linked to miscarriages, thyroid disease and cancer and recent reports suggest that it could also be contributing to an increase in neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, and Alzheimer’s. In 2009 Duke University conducted an Alzheimer’s study on 4000 people over the age of 65 in an agriculture county in Utah.

“After adjusting for age, sex, education, and a gene known to raise the risk of Alzheimer’s, the researchers found that people who worked with pesticides were 53% more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.”

In late December a lawsuit was filed to challenge the approval of methyl iodide. In January, Pesticide Action Network, North America (PANNA) delivered over 52,000 signatures to newly-elected Governor Brown, encouraging the administration to reverse the decision.

What surprises me, and what should surprise the 10.9 million unpaid caregivers tending to those stricken with Alzheimer’s, is that the approval happened at all. While there is not yet a clear, direct link between pesticides and Alzheimer’s, given a person with the right genetic disposition and a steady dose of pesticides, why make those risks a reality?

Scientists from around the country are concerned about the use of methyl iodide and other pesticides in agriculture. The California Scientific Review Committee (SRC) called methyl iodide, “one of the most toxic chemicals on earth.” It’s clear that pesticides (and antibiotics, and hormones and genetically modified organisms, etc.) are harming our health and the health of the earth. So, what can we do to avoid these toxins?

Control our food as best we can!

Ask questions of the farmers selling at farmers' markets. Buy organic when it’s possible. Cook with whole foods and avoid processed and chemical-added foods whenever you can. If you have the space and time, grow your own food. And stay informed through websites such as PANNA and Beyond Pesticides and about the chemicals and pesticides that we interact with every day.