Exposure to Pesticides When Pregnant Linked to 3 Generations of Disease

Ammar Awad/Reuters

In the post-Silent Spring 1960s, when the pesticide DDT was discovered to be toxic to humans and wildlife and to persist for years in the environment, farmers and landscapers turned enthusiastically to Methoxychlor. The pesticide—also commercially known as Chemform, Methoxo, Metox or Moxie—had a much shorter half-life and was billed as the safe alternative to DDT. Now, new research argues that exposure to the pesticide could cause diseases three generations later, in offspring who were never exposed to the Methoxychlor themselves.

Biologist Michael Skinner and his team at Washington State University found that if a rat fetus is exposed to Methoxychlor during the first trimester of pregnancy, the likelihood of kidney disease, ovary disease and obesity in their progeny was elevated for three generations. Multiple diseases were even more prevalent in the third generation than in the second. In other words, Methoxychlor, which was banned in the U.S. in 2003 for a host of human health reasons, can still leave its mark on a population decades after exposure ends. The great-great-grandchildren of a woman exposed to Methoxychlor may still be suffering the consequences.

The new finding follows Skinner's previous research, which identified transgenerational epigenetic disorders resulting from toxins including PCBs and DEET through up to six generations. Epigenetics govern which genes turn on and off and when, so epigenetic "misbehavior" can lead to a range of diseases, especially obesity and diseases that affect the reproductive system and kidneys. In the majority of Skinner's previous findings, the problem was identified as altered epigenetics in the sperm. In the Methoxychlor, it was the egg that contained the damaged "epigenetic signature," resulting in susceptibility to disease passed generationally through the mother.

Methoxychlor was banned after it was found to mimic estrogen, acting as a reproductive toxin leading to infertility in animals. It turned up in human breast milk, and it is assumed to be able to cross the placenta. In high doses, it can act as a neurotoxin, damaging an animal's nervous system. While those hazards would affect the first generation exposed, the epigenetic mutations that result from transgenerational inheritance can cause entirely different diseases.

"If the sperm or the egg have an altered epigenetic signature that is being used to develop the early embryo, those signatures are transferred to the embryonic stem cell, which can turn into any cell in the body. Because of the altered epigenetics, every cell in the body will have an altered expression of genes, and therefore so will every tissue," Skinner explained. "If the tissue is a type that is sensitive to small changes, to what genes are turned off and on, it will be susceptible later in life to disease."

For example, the adipose tissue determines to a large degree how your body stores fat. Adipose is highly sensitive to epigenetic changes, like the kind that Skinner argues can be triggered by a great-grandmother's exposure to Methoxychlor. If your adipose tissue is out of whack, even a small amount of caloric intake will be converted to fat, leading to obesity.

The E.U. banned Methoxychlor in 2002, and the U.S. followed suit in 2003. But that doesn't mean it immediately left the country's food and water supply—a ban only ends production of the chemical, but any privately owned stocks of the chemical can still be in use, so banned chemicals can take years to be fully phased out. For example, the Environmental Working Group found above-threshold levels of Methoxychlor in some municipal water supplies in Iowa after 2004.

While most developed nations have banned Methoxychlor, Skinner says the pesticide is still widely used in Mexico and in South American countries, where the U.S. gets a significant portion of its produce. Mexico is the second largest provider of agricultural products to the U.S.

"If we get our food from places in South America and Mexico, that's of concern," Skinner says.