Weed whackers: Pull pesky plants; don't spray poisons

"One thousand weeds in the lawn, one thousand nasty weeds. Take one out, pass it about, 999 weeds in the lawn.”

Yes, I sing my own variation of “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” while I do yard work. Our large lawn looks like the backdrop of a post-apocalyptic Mad Max movie.

So I've been pulling up hundreds of weeds by hand– and that makes my neighbors think I’m trying to bury dead bodies in our yard. I also spread Weed & Feed last fall. Frequently, I spray the yard with a pesticide that contains organophosphates (OP). And wouldn’t you just know it: the April issue of Journal of Environmental Health Perspectives reports a study that OP exposure during pregnancy is associated with lower IQs in children!

Will organophosphates do me in– right in my own back yard?

OP are toxic to the nervous system, which is how they kill insects. Previous studies of OP suggest increased risk of multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, Parkinson's disease, and Alzheimer's. Depression and suicide rates appear to be higher in areas where there's greater OP use. (Hm, maybe those dandelions aren’t so bad after all.)

OP are absorbed into the body through the skin, lungs, and the gut. If the toxic elements are ingested or inhaled, the symptoms and signs occur soon. If OP toxicity occurs via the skin, problems present later. It can take up to five days for toxicity symptoms to occur from exposure to a well-known OP, malathion.

Three million people in the world each year are exposed to OP (or carbamates, which are similar), resulting in 300,000 deaths a year. In the US in 2008, more than 8,000 exposures were reported with fewer than 15 deaths. 

OP toxicity usually occurs accidentally from ingestion of agricultural pesticides. Other possible ways to be poisoned are eating contaminated fruit, flour, and cooking oil. Contaminated clothes are also a possible route for toxicity.

Acute toxicity can cause vomiting, drooling, excessive tears, dehydration from diarrhea, and peeing every five seconds. Holy Niagara Falls, Batman! The heart rate can slow down, which can easily send a dehydrated person into cardiovascular shock. Wheezing, shortness of breath, and repressed breathing are serious issues, as respiratory failure is the main cause of death in organophosphate toxicity.

Survivors of acute OP toxicity usually have brain problems such as poor memory, trouble thinking, behavior problems, and Parkinson’s disease symptoms.

OP toxicity isn’t always acute. So in particular, farmers and field workers with weird movement or thinking problems should be screened for OP exposure.

In 1992, global sales reach $2.88 billion– 40 percent of the world market in insecticides. The cotton industry decreased the amount of OP use in the ‘90s, but it is still prevalent in some places.

Though OP degrades pretty easily, they are still regularly detected at low levels in food. Foods that contain the most OP include grapes (maybe this is why the OCD counselor on Glee! individually wipes every grape), apples, and pears. In just 2008, the USDA found traces of OP in 28 percent of frozen blueberries, 27 percent of green beans, 25 percent of strawberries, 20 percent of celery, 17 percent of peaches, and 8 percent of broccoli.

OP are not known to accumulate in water.

I didn’t know roach and ant sprays like Raid and Black Flag contain OP. I'm not so sure I want to be in the room for a long time after spraying for bugs.

I’m paying attention to OP now– as I’m still breathing and thinking. I'm thinking I’m going green.
Dr. Hook cracks a joke or two, but he's a renowned physician with an interesting website, drjohnhong.com