Should you eat organic? Detoxifying Organophosphates

Is buying organic worth the extra cost?

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to that question.

Pesticides sprayed on conventionally grown foods affect people differently. Some people carry genetic variants that decrease their ability to detoxify specific pesticides, others may be more resilient.

This is Part Two in a series on pesticides. 

What are organophosphates?

Organophosphates are a class of chemicals used in some pesticides. When insects are exposed to organophosphates, their acetylcholinesterase enzyme is blocked.

Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter that sends a signal from one nerve to the next. Acetylcholinesterase is the enzyme that turns off that signal. Both are needed — and needed at the right time — for your nerves to work.

By blocking acetylcholinesterase, organophosphates cause insect nerves not to stop firing, which eventually kills the insect.

Where are organophosphates used?

Organophosphates are commonly used as insecticides on conventionally grown crops:

  • Parathion (banned in most countries)
  • Chlorpyrifos
  • Diazinon
  • Phosmet
  • Malathion

Organophosphates were also used as a nerve gas during WWI and WWII. Examples of nerve gas include sarin, VX, and Novick.[ref]

Flame retardant chemicals also contain organophosphates.[ref] And organophosphate esters are also used in some food packaging.[ref]

Chlorpyrifos use commonly controls termites, mosquitoes, and roundworms and is now prohibited for indoor home use. On crops, it is used on grapes/fruits, soybeans, and corn.

The map from the USGS below shows the usage of chlorpyrifos in the US. (2016).

Chlorpyrifos is one of the most commonly used organophosphates in the US. It is used on corn, soybeans, wheat, grapes, and more. Hawaii and NY have recently banned the use of chlorpyrifos in those states due to concerns over health impacts.

Let’s take a look at some of the impacts of different organophosphates on human health…

Human Studies:

Organophosphate exposure has links to impaired attention, memory problems, and other cognitive problems. Also, links to chronic health problems such as Gulf War Syndrome, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s exist.[ref]

Acute exposure to organophosphates negatively impacts the central nervous system, cardiovascular system, respiratory system, and gastrointestinal system.[ref]

If you are thinking, ‘that is pretty much everything in the body’, you are right. And acute exposure at a certain level is lethal – either through not being able to breathe or your heart shutting down… But most of us will never be exposed to acute levels of organophosphates (hopefully).

Avoiding all organophosphates is difficult, perhaps almost impossible. A study of Canadian children found organophosphate metabolites in the urine of 91% of children.[ref] Another study found organophosphate metabolites in the urine of 100% of the participants (adults, Atlanta, GA).[ref]

Long-term, low-dose exposure to organophosphates has links to:

  • psychiatric problems or impaired neurobehavioral functioning[ref]
  • motor neuron problems (Parkinson’s like symptoms)
  • developmental neurotoxicity[ref]
  • general exposure from living in agricultural areas is linked to Parkinson’s[ref]
  • prenatal exposure affects cognitive development in kids, depending in part on the mom’s genotype (more below)[ref]
  • another prenatal study in agricultural workers found that higher maternal OP pesticide exposure decreased their children’s IQ. The top quartile of moms exposed had a 7-point lower IQ in the kids.[ref]
  • farmworkers generally show neurological effects from organophosphate exposure, such as problems with executive function, verbal, memory, or processing speed[ref]
  • a study in India found that OP exposure was linked to HbA1c levels and diabetes risk — but not through acetylcholine esterase, but via the gut microbiome[ref]
  • increased risk of obesity[ref]
  • disrupts thyroid function (study of pregnant women)[ref]
  • muscle weakness and numbness (rice farm workers)[ref]

Animal Studies:

There are numerous animal studies using various organophosphate pesticides at low and high doses. Here are the results from just a few of the recent studies:

  • organophosphates modify expression in genes regulating the cell cycle and apoptosis in the brain (baby rat study)[ref]
  • organophosphate exposure in early life exacerbates the risk of obesity, especially in high-fat diets (rat studies)[ref]
  • chlorpyrifos has been shown to decrease intestinal integrity, which increases LPS and low-grade inflammation (in mice). This leads to obesity.[ref]
  • chlorpyrifos damages sperm and decreases sperm count in rats. A high-fat diet decreased the effects.[ref]
  • chlorpyrifos messes with rats’ brains — decreased neurocognitive performance and increased anxiety-like behavior.[ref]


Organophosphates Genotype Report:

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Your genetic variants play a role in how well you detoxify and get rid of pesticides from your body. Some people are champs at getting rid of organophosphates, and others of us are more at risk of the negative effects.

BChE Gene Variants:

Butyrylcholinesterase (BChE), also known as pseudocholinesterase, breaks down organophosphates from pesticides and nerve gas.

Check your genetic data for rs1803274 (23andMe v4, v5):

  • T/T: K variant, ~14% reduction in BChE, increased risk of Parkinson’s due to organophosphate exposure[ref]
  • C/T: carrier of one copy of the K variant, reduced BChE, increased risk of Parkinson’s due to organophosphate exposure[ref]
  • C/C: typical

Members: Your genotype for rs1803274 is .

PON1 Gene Variants:

Paraoxonase 1 (PON1) is an enzyme that hydrolyzes organophosphate pesticides, allowing them to be excreted by the body. This is actually the second step in the process that the body goes through to break down and excrete organophosphates. The first phase of the process creates a toxic molecule, so this second phase, which uses PON1, is extremely important for getting rid of the organophosphates.[ref]

Check your genetic results for rs662 (23andMe v4, v5; AncestryDNA):

  • T/T: typical – but possible effects on kids exposed in utero.
  • C/T: (most common genotype in most populations)
  • C/C: increased risk of thyroid problems from organophosphate exposure[ref]; prenatal organophosphate exposure increases BMI in children[ref]; generally poorer outcome for exposure to organophosphate pesticides[ref][ref][ref]

Members: Your genotype for rs662 is .

In general, higher exposure to organophosphates and decreased cognitive development are linked. A study that looked at maternal genotype, exposure of the child while in utero, and then later cognitive development found that when mom carried the rs662 TT genotype and had higher exposure to organophosphates, their kids were more likely to have decreased intelligence exam scores at ages 6 – 9. The mothers in this study were Hispanic and African American women exposed to normal amounts of organophosphates in New York City. The study didn’t show the kids’ PON1 genotypes.[ref]

Chromosome 8q24 Variant:

Check your genetic data for rs4242382 (23andMe v4, v5; AncestryDNA):

  • A/A: Exposure to permethrin increases the risk of prostate cancer[ref]
  • A/G: Exposure to permethrin increases the risk of prostate cancer
  • G/G: typical

Members: Your genotype for rs4242382 is .


CYP2B6 Genetic Variants:

While PON1 takes care of the second phase of detoxifying organophosphates, there are several genes that code for the enzymes responsible for the first phase of detoxification. The CYP2B6 enzyme metabolizes organophosphates at lower concentrations, such as from normal exposure to pesticide residues. Another enzyme (CYP3A4) is utilized at high concentrations, such as from pesticide poisoning.[ref]

Check your genetic variants for rs3745274 (23andMe v.4):

  • T/T: CYP2B6*6, increased activity, less toxicity from chlorpyrifos[ref][ref]
  • G/T: somewhat increased clearance of organophosphates
  • G/G: typical

Members: Your genotype for rs3745274 is .

Check your genetic data for rs2279343 (23andMe v4, v5):

  • G/G CYP2B6*6, increased activity, less toxicity from chlorpyrifos[ref][ref]
  • A/G: somewhat increased clearance of organophosphates
  • A/A: typical

Members: Your genotype for rs2279343 is .


Avoiding Organophosphates:

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About the Author:
Debbie Moon is the founder of Genetic Lifehacks. Fascinated by the connections between genes, diet, and health, her goal is to help you understand how to apply genetics to your diet and lifestyle decisions. Debbie has a BS in engineering and also an MSc in biological sciences from Clemson University. Debbie combines an engineering mindset with a biological systems approach to help you understand how genetic differences impact your optimal health.

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