Meet Our Pioneers under 20 in Environmental Public Health: Cynthia Curl, PhD, MS
Cynthia Curl, PhD, MS knows about pesticides. In fact, it has been a topic of research for her for the last 15 years. While much of her work now compares levels of pesticide exposures among consumers of organic versus conventional produce, that isn’t initially where her research began.
“I didn’t start out studying diet or organic food, I really started out looking at pesticide exposures among farm workers and their families. I was working with the Pacific Northwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center, whose mission is…to improve farm worker health. [But,] we had this unexpected finding where we had some kids in Seattle with higher exposures [to pesticides] than kids in farming communities out in Eastern Washington, and it took us a while to even come up with some ideas about why this may be. Ultimately, I started to suspect that it was diet just because of their differences in socioeconomic status and differences in dietary patterns that their parents reported,” Dr. Curl shares.
Her work on this project also happened to be around the time that the USDA Organic label was introduced. While not a perfect representation of foods that are pesticide free, the USDA organic label does serve as a convenient comparison point for some of Dr. Curl’s research.
To be clear, the USDA organic label doesn’t exactly mean pesticide free. But, Dr. Curl was kind enough to explain what the certification ensures.
“Our USDA organic label is basically five things you can’t do in organic crop production that you can do in conventional. The first is that the organic label prohibits the use of most synthetic pesticides. That doesn’t mean there are no pesticides used in organic agriculture, but most of the ones that we typically research in conjunction with a lot of negative health effects, including organophosphates, pyrethroids, and most herbicides, are restricted. It also means you can’t use synthetic fertilizers, [which is] a big use of fossil fuels… You also can’t use sewage sludge, so no human waste. And, you can’t use GMOs, and you can’t use ionizing radiation,” Dr. Curl explains.
This is a pretty wide-ranging list of restrictions for fruits and vegetables to be considered organic. And while it does put in place quite a few standards, there are always people wanting it to do something else.
“It has certainly been controversial…but, we can see in our human exposure studies, this label definitely makes a difference in terms of human exposure to many pesticides,” Dr. Curl says.
Although eating organic can lower the levels of pesticides a person may ingest through their diet, Dr. Curl points out that levels coming from diet may not be too high to begin with.
Much of the research she has done with diet, and some of the best research in the field that uses mother-child cohort studies with pairs living in areas with higher levels of pesticides, has found that the levels measured in humans are typically below the daily reference dose limits set by the EPA.
Although the levels in all of these studies are generally below the set EPA benchmarks, “consistently in those studies they found that when moms had higher prenatal exposure to organophosphates, their children had scored more poorly in test of memory, IQ, attention, and other neurological markers,” Dr. Curl shares.
This is worrisome because “in-utero development is where so many things are happening neurologically, and you have a dose to body weight that is a lot higher. This a very sensitive time… If there are health effects at these low doses, even from diet, this is such a common exposure that it becomes a bigger deal,” Dr. Curl states.
While this would seem to point to organic diets being more important for young children and women who are pregnant, Dr. Curl still had some thoughts to keep in mind.
“As important as I think this work is on pesticide exposure, the health benefits of eating fresh fruits and vegetables are well established. The one thing I would never want anyone to take from my work is the idea that if they can’t afford organic then they should avoid fruits and vegetables. If there is a health benefit to reducing your dietary pesticide exposure, it’s still subtle in comparison to having a diet rich in fruits and vegetable,” Dr. Curl states.
So, don’t stop eating fruits and vegetables. No matter if you are buying them organic or not, they are still an important part to a healthy diet.
“At the end of the day, my research isn’t about telling people that they should suddenly start eating organic. It’s about figuring out whether there are levels of pesticides that are showing up in our conventionally grown foods that are unsafe. And, organic provides a convenient way to have something to compare that to. But, it’s kind of an environmental justice issue. The upshot of this shouldn’t be that we should tell pregnant women to eat organic, it’s that we should get rid of pesticide residues that are present in any of our food if they are affecting our children’s health,” Dr. Curl says.
However, if you have the resources, buying organic does still have some benefits. Directly, it has been shown to lower the amount of pesticides that you ingest. But there are other benefits as well.
“You are reducing pesticide exposure to workers, and there are environmental benefits to choosing organic, but I just think people need to understand what it is they are buying. And, if there is something that is unsafe, then that should be changed for everyone,” Dr. Curl states.
Additionally, buying organic can help shift the way food is grown and the way products are developed.
“One of the things that I have found really hopeful about the growth of the organic food market is that it demonstrates people’s willingness to vote with their dollar for something that they believe to be healthier for themselves and or the environment,” Dr. Curl says.
And, this is a great start. If buying organic is a way to vote with your dollars for more food options that are promoting healthier decisions and work places for everyone, then that should be encouraged. But, the end goal shouldn’t just be that stores sell only organic. It should be that production changes so that everyone is getting healthier food when then shop, no matter what they pick up in the produce section.
We wanted to find the best young researchers and advocates who might change the future of environmental health. So, we asked a panel of luminaries in environmental health to nominate rising stars who are doing pioneering work. After a rigorous selection process, we invited 20 of these nominees to be our 20 Pioneers under 40 in Environmental Public Health.
In June, we held our final webinar in the series. In addition to these presentations, we got to sit down and learn a little bit more about the researchers. While we did talk about their research, we also learned how they first got interested in the field and what this work means to them, plus a few tips for staying healthy.