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    By Arthur Fitzmaurice | October 14th 2009 06:32 PM | Print | E-mail
    Would you pay $20 a week to reduce your risk of Parkinson’s disease? No, I’m not about to trail off on a commentary about the public health option. I’m talking about making better-informed decisions as we push our carts down the produce aisle at the local grocery store.

    Parkinson’s disease is the second most prevalent neurodegenerative disorder--an illness in which certain neurons in the brain are lost over years or even decades until the person ultimately dies. (The most common is Alzheimer’s.) In Parkinson’s, neurons in the substantia nigral region of the brain are destroyed, manifesting as motor symptoms including muscle rigidity, slowing or loss of physical movement, and a resting tremor.

    Michael J. Fox has become the “poster child” of the disease, but really only a small fraction of people with Parkinson’s inherited it solely through their genes. Most seem to be diagnosed with the disease after years of exposure to something in the environment that was not suspected to have this effect. While genetic susceptibility is almost certainly part of the problem too, “rural living” and “well-water drinking” have surfaced as major contributors to increased risk.

    So we should all just move to the city and shut down our artesian wells, right? Well, wait a minute! What is it about these things that make us more likely to get Parkinson’s disease? Researchers at the UCLA Center for Gene-Environment Studies in Parkinson’s Disease believe pesticides are the culprits. A recent study by a research team led by epidemiologist Beate Ritz, Ph.D., and neurologist Jeff Bronstein, M.D., Ph.D., revealed that people who lived or worked within 500 meters of fields sprayed with pesticides in California’s Central Valley were 75% more likely to contract the disorder.[1]

    This news certainly is striking, but it’s not surprising that the very chemicals used to kill the fungus growing on strawberry crops can also inflict harm on our own neurons. And yet, for years, many farmers have not employed simple practices that could have reduced their risk considerably. At a recent meeting at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), Freya Kamel, Ph.D., shared her finding that farmers who did not wear gloves or personal protective equipment (like face masks) when mixing and spraying pesticides were more likely to get Parkinson’s in their old age. [2] Tragically, some can’t afford the protective equipment that could ultimately save their lives, but even if they could, anecdotal evidence reveals that they are not aware--or are apathetic--of the critical health risks of their occupation, such as those that can lead to Parkinson’s disease. One farmer admitted that “to make a profit, most farmers take risks that might endanger their health.”[3]

    If farmers who have their hands in pesticides everyday are not protecting themselves, how much do we as consumers think about our own health when the toxicants aren’t in a bucket right in front of us? Should we give a second thought at the grocery store when we read the “organic” label on our fruits and vegetables? It’s not so straightforward when we read reports that even organic farms can use certain pesticides that are found on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) list of natural pesticides (including rotenone which has been associated with increased Parkinson’s risk).[4]

    According to data from the Economic Research Service of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), organic produce can cost up to 2.5 times as much as the “non-organic” counterparts.[5]  In this economy, some will need further convincing to fork over the extra green for their fruits and veggies, but we can’t afford to risk getting Parkinson’s or other diseases either.

    The average consumer typically takes an all-or-nothing attitude with organic produce, either desperately clutching all that will fit in the shopping cart or stubbornly refusing to even compare the prices. But we can find a way to balance our fears and our checkbooks, while reducing our health risk.

    For instance, the USDA economic data reveal that some varieties of apples actually cost the same to buy organic, so why not make the change to organic? On the other hand, certain crops like avocados experience a considerable price mark-up with the organic label, but the edible portion is well-protected from pesticide contamination[6], so save your dinero.  If you don’t eat strawberries too often, then maybe it’s not worth the extra cash to buy organic. As for me and the spinach and salad mixes that are difficult to wash thoroughly, I’d gladly pay the extra $4 a week to buy organic with the likelihood that my risk of Parkinson’s--and perhaps a slew of other yet-undetermined health risks--will be mitigated.

    Your grocery bill might get a little higher, but if you make some strategic choices, you’ll increase your chances of leaving the grocery store with a clean bill of health.

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    [1] Costello, S., Cockburn, M., Bronstein, J., Zhang, X., Ritz, B. Parkinson’s
    disease and residential exposure to maneb and paraquat from agricultural
    applications in the Central Valley of California. Amer. J. Epidem., 2009.
    169(8):919.
    [2] Kamel, F. Annual meeting of the Centers for Neurodegeneration Science Program. 2009 Oct 9, Durham (NC). Oral.
    [3] Alvanja, M.C., Sprince, N.L., Oliver, E., Whitten, P., Lynch, C., Gillette, P.P., Logsden-Sackett, N., Zwerling, C. Nested case-control analysis of high pesticide exposure events from the Agricultural Health Study. Amer. J. Indust. Med., 2001. 39(6):557.
    [4] Silver, L. What is the meaning of ‘organic’ (and inorganic) food? Scientificblogging, 2007 Mar 11.
    [5] Dimitri, C. Organic prices. United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. Data set accessed 2009-10-13 at http://www.ers.usda.gov/Data/OrganicPrices.
    [6] Poynter, J. Organic vegetables: are they really better than conventionally grown? Scientificblogging, 2007 Aug 15.