You probably know pesticides are linked to health problems and environmental issues. But you may not know they can disrupt your cells’ mitochondria — your biological batteries.
Your mitochondria generate energy, help you detoxify, and support your immune system. Pesticides can throw a wrench into all those functions and more.
Pesticides are chemicals designed to harm unwanted pests. Two types are insecticides and herbicides, which are targeted to bugs and weeds, respectively. (1)
Farmers commonly use pesticides to protect their crops. And homeowners often use the chemicals, thinking they’re “protecting” their home or yard.
That may sound reasonable. But pesticides can have unintended consequences for other living creatures — including you.
Many studies show that pesticides can damage mitochondria. This hinders energy production and may trigger cell death. Over the long term, that may lead to disease and speed up aging.
The good news is, you can avoid much of this pesticide damage. But it takes the right nutrition, supplement, and lifestyle strategies.
Here’s a look at 10 pesticides that could be meddling with your mitochondria. You’ll learn where you might be exposed to these toxins and how they may harm your health. Plus, you’ll discover ways to help protect your mitochondria from these chemicals.
This herbicide was introduced in 1974 and is now the most commonly used weed killer in the world. Roundup is a well-known glyphosate product. But there are more than 750 products that contain the chemical. (2, 3, 4)
Glyphosate is a non-specific herbicide, meaning it can potentially kill most plants. Scientists have developed genetically modified (GMO) crops — like soybeans and corn — to withstand glyphosate. (5)
Worldwide, nearly 19 billion pounds of glyphosate have been used since it was introduced. However, many countries are now restricting the chemical’s use. Some are moving toward banning it altogether. (5, 6)
Cancer concerns prompted some countries to change their policies on glyphosate. But it’s still commonly used in the United States. (5, 7)
How you could be exposed to glyphosate
Quite possibly, glyphosate is contaminating the food in your kitchen, water for drinking and showering, and the air in your yard.
Glyphosate is used to deter weed growth as well as to dry crops to speed up harvesting. Tests of soil and water reveal that glyphosate lingers longer than once thought. And, food often contains residues of the weed killer. (8, 9)
The herbicide is commonly used on: (5, 9)
- Sugar beets
- Alfalfa (livestock feed)
Glyphosate use goes beyond farming. People in your neighborhood may be using it in their yards. Businesses may be using it to kill weeds on their property. It’s even used in forest areas and on Christmas trees. (8)
How glyphosate may affect your mitochondria
Your mitochondria are in charge of generating energy for your cells. Most of this energy is produced in the electron transport chain. This involves passing electrons through a series of carrier proteins — almost like runners passing a baton in a relay race.
Animal studies suggest that glyphosate may “trip” the runners. The baton may not get passed to the next runner. As a result, mitochondria produce less energy. (4, 10)
Other lab research suggests glyphosate may trigger the collapse of mitochondrial membranes. This process may happen at relatively low levels of exposure to the pesticide. (11)
Lab and animal studies also show glyphosate generates a lot of reactive oxygen species (ROS) in cells. An excess of these damaging free radicals could trigger mitochondria and cells to “self destruct.” (4, 10, 11)
Paraquat dichloride — commonly used in an herbicide called Gramoxone — was first used in 1961. The chemical is highly toxic, so a license is required to use it in the United States. In other countries, regulations vary. (12, 13)
Commercial farmers can use paraquat to control weeds. It kills them by interfering with their energy production via photosynthesis. (13)
Paraquat is banned in the European Union and South Korea because of its toxicity to people. It can cause fatal poisoning when ingested. Still, it’s commonly used in the United States. Sometimes it’s used to kill weeds that have become glyphosate-resistant. (13, 14, 15, 16)
How you could be exposed to paraquat
Worldwide, paraquat is used to produce more than a hundred different crops. For example, it’s used to grow some bananas, coffee, palm oil, cotton, corn, and soybeans. These agricultural products may carry residues of the chemical. (13, 14, 17, 18)
Paraquat is most dangerous to people who come into direct contact with it. It easily absorbs into your skin. In fact, the pesticide makes your skin more permeable — so it becomes a super sponge for the toxic chemical. (17)
Still, you’re not free of the risk just because you don’t use the chemical directly. Paraquat can stay in the soil for decades and in the water for centuries. You may encounter it in drinking water, as well as lakes and streams. (17, 19)
The highest risk of exposure is in farming areas that use the pesticide. This is of great concern in pregnancy, as paraquat can cross the placenta and harm unborn children. (17)
How paraquat may affect your mitochondria
Similar to glyphosate, paraquat may interfere with the “runners” passing electrons within your mitochondria. It also creates a significant amount of oxidative stress and mitochondrial dysfunction. This can trigger cell death. (20, 21)
More specifically, the oxidative stress from paraquat can damage the membranes of mitochondria. It can also damage the DNA or genetic blueprints in mitochondria, which are vital for their normal function. (21, 22, 23)
On top of that, animal research found that paraquat reduced the mitochondria’s ability to use oxygen by 70%. A good supply of oxygen is needed for efficient energy production. (24)
Chlorpyrifos has been used in the United States since 1965. It is used to kill pests such as termites, cockroaches, fleas, and ticks, as well as insects that harm crops. Common products that contain the chemical are Dursban and Lorsban. (25, 26)
This insecticide works by overstimulating the insect’s nervous system. This kills the bug. The chemical can also interfere with the function of your brain and nervous system. (27, 28)
In 2000, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned chlorpyrifos from household use (with a few exceptions, discussed below). In 2016, the EPA tried to ban the pesticide from use on crops, due to its high toxicity to the human nervous system. But the ruling was overturned. (29, 30, 31)
How you could be exposed to chlorpyrifos
You may encounter chlorpyrifos in foods, a few consumer products, and the environment.
The pesticide is commonly used in farming. It’s used in cattle ear tags to deter flies and other pests. Beef and dairy products you eat may be contaminated with chlorpyrifos. (25, 32, 33)
Chlorpyrifos is also used to grow several crops, including: (25, 28)
- Some fruit trees
- Cruciferous vegetables, like broccoli and kale
- Tree nuts, such as almonds
When the insecticide is used to grow crops, residues can remain on the food you eat. When scientists tested oranges, peaches, tomatoes, and grapes grown in Italy, the residues of chlorpyrifos exceeded limits set by the European Union. (34)
If you have a pet, you could also encounter chlorpyrifos. It may be used in pet collars to control fleas and ticks. And the chemical is still sold in childproof bait traps for roaches and ants. (25, 26)
In addition, chlorpyrifos may be used on golf courses and in greenhouses. It may also be used to treat wood for fences and poles. (28)
How chlorpyrifos may affect your mitochondria
Lab studies of human cells suggest that chlorpyrifos may break apart your mitochondria. As you might guess, this disrupts their ability to produce energy. (35)
In addition, animal research suggests that chlorpyrifos may reduce the number of mitochondria within nerve cells. The chemical may also slow the ability of mitochondria to move around in nerve cells. That may contribute to nervous system damage. (36)
This pesticide was approved for use in the United States in 1958. It is a selective herbicide, meaning it kills specific weeds. It’s an ingredient in products such as Aatrex and Gesaprim. (37)
Atrazine can be applied before the weeds emerge from the soil, attacking the roots. This makes it very effective. It’s also low cost. These attributes make it a popular herbicide among farmers. (37)
On the other hand, atrazine is very unpopular among environmentalists. The chemical can disrupt hormones in fish and frogs when it contaminates water. Due to this and concerns about human risk, the U.S. government now restricts the use of atrazine to trained technicians. (37, 38, 39)
In 2004, the European Union banned atrazine because of how readily it contaminates the water supply. Unfortunately, it's still one of the most commonly used herbicides in the world. (37)
How you could be exposed to atrazine
You may encounter atrazine in water and certain foods, as well as in the environment.
Atrazine is the most common herbicide found in water, and it may persist in water long term. On top of that, the chemical can contaminate areas where it has never been used. It evaporates and comes down to the earth again through rainfall — sometimes hundreds of miles from where it was originally applied. (38, 40)
Over half a million pounds of atrazine are spread through rainfall every year in the United States alone. It can end up in your tap water and bottled drinking water. Water treatment plants test for atrazine to keep it below a certain limit. Still, don’t expect zero levels. (38, 41, 42)
Atrazine may also contaminate some foods grown in the United States, including: (43)
- Macadamia nuts
In addition, atrazine may be used on evergreen tree farms, household lawns, and golf courses. It may also be used to kill weeds along roadsides. (43, 44)
How atrazine may affect your mitochondria
Lab tests suggest atrazine may hinder the ability to make new mitochondria. It also disrupts energy production. Similar to glyphosate, atrazine may interfere with the “runners” passing electrons to make ATP. (45)
Animal studies show that atrazine exposure can cause mitochondria to swell. This damages the folds (cristae) in the mitochondrial inner membrane — which is where most ATP is made. (46)
Atrazine can also create significant free radical damage and mitochondrial dysfunction in nerve cells, according to animal research. That could trigger nerve cells to self-destruct, potentially leading to nerve and brain damage. (47)
Unlike many pesticides, rotenone is naturally-occurring. It’s taken from the roots of certain plants in the legume family. (48)
Once rotenone is extracted, it’s combined with other ingredients to make pesticides such as Chemfish. As suggested by this name, it’s used to kill invasive fish. (49, 50)
Rotenone works by preventing the mitochondria of fish from taking in oxygen. They can’t generate energy, and their cells suffocate. This results in death. (51)
Formerly, rotenone was commonly used to protect crops from insects. But research has linked rotenone to Parkinson’s disease in people. Due to this and other concerns, it’s no longer allowed on food crops in the United States. The European Union has also banned its use on crops. (49, 52, 53)
How you could be exposed to rotenone
You’re unlikely to encounter the chemical by eating fish, especially from the store. If you fish, there may be a rare case where you may be exposed. For example, fish may survive the use of the chemical. But they break it down and excrete it within a matter of days. (54)
And though rotenone isn’t permitted on U.S. crops, you might encounter it on some imported organic bananas. That may sound odd, but rotenone was once allowed on organic crops in the United States. That’s because it’s a naturally-derived chemical. (55, 56, 57)
It’s also noteworthy that the jicama plant — which is in the legume family — naturally contains rotenone in its stem, roots, and seed pods. So, only eat the turnip-shaped vegetable produced by the plant, which is what’s sold in stores. Remove its inedible skin, which may contain rotenone. (49, 58, 59, 60)
Lastly, you may encounter small amounts of rotenone in drinking water. This is monitored to verify any contamination is below a certain level. (54)
How rotenone may affect your mitochondria
Rotenone may work in your mitochondria similarly to how it causes harm in fish. It may block your mitochondria from using oxygen, preventing them from generating ATP. (61)
This interference with energy production may generate a significant amount of free radicals in the mitochondria. This could damage mitochondrial DNA and trigger cell death. (61)
Rotenone also inhibits mitochondrial proteins that drive the production of ATP. A different toxin known to cause Parkinson’s disease inflicts its harm the same way. (62)
This pesticide is used to kill insects, such as grubs and cattle lice. It’s used in branded insecticides, such as Dylox and Neguvon. (63)
Like chlorpyrifos, trichlorfon blocks an enzyme that keeps nerves “quiet.” Instead of sending nerve messages only when they should, trichlorfon influences nerves to send messages continuously. That leads to insects’ death. (63)
Due to toxicity concerns, trichlorfon isn’t permitted on U.S. crops. It’s also barred from crop use in the European Union, Argentina, Brazil, and New Zealand. India plans to ban this chemical in 2020. Still, there are other ways you could be exposed to it. (63, 64, 65, 66)
How you could be exposed to trichlorfon
Though not used on food plants grown in the United States, trichlorfon may be used in a lice treatment for cattle. (63)
The chemical may also be utilized in food or meat processing plants. But, it can only be used on surfaces that the food doesn’t touch. How it’s applied to surfaces or whether it may contaminate the surrounding air isn’t clear. (63)
Trichlorfon may be used on golf courses, home lawns, fish ponds, and flowers to kill caterpillars, white grubs, and other insects. For example, you can buy Dylox — an insecticide that contains trichlorfon — online for some of these purposes. (63)
If you go to battle against bugs in your yard, make sure you’re not using toxic chemicals like trichlorfon. It can contaminate groundwater, as well as your body when you apply it.
Interestingly, the chemical was once used to treat people infected with Schistosoma parasitic worms, as well as for people with Alzheimer’s disease. But due to its toxic effects, trichlorfon is no longer used for these purposes. (67, 68)
How trichlorfon may affect your mitochondria
Studies on fish suggest trichlorfon may significantly harm mitochondria. When exposed to the chemical, their mitochondria became swollen. Also, the mitochondrial membranes were damaged, causing loss of folds called cristae. These are a major site of energy production. (69)
In addition, lab analyses suggest trichlorfon may increase free radical damage in the mitochondria of liver cells. This mitochondrial damage can trigger cell death. (69)
This herbicide is used to kill weeds. As with glyphosate, scientists have developed GMO plants that can withstand its effects. In the United States, more than a thousand different products contain dicamba. A couple of examples are Engenia and XtendiMax. (70, 71)
Dicamba works by mimicking plant hormones, making plants grow erratically. This may eventually kill unwanted plants or weeds. (71)
A big source of controversy is that dicamba can drift via the wind to nearby fields of non-dicamba-tolerant crops. And sometimes dicamba is combined with glyphosate. Research suggests this makes dicamba more likely to change to a gas and spread through the air. (72, 73)
This chemical will be one to watch to see how regulations change in the future. Currently, the EPA only permits certified pesticide technicians to spray the chemical on crops. (72)
How you could be exposed to dicamba
Residues of dicamba can remain on food crops. The EPA says the residue levels on foods are “safe.” But as you know, it’s best to avoid chemical pesticides to the extent that you can. (72)
Dicamba may be used on several crops, though it may be most common in the first two items in this list: (74)
- Other grains
The chemical may be used on lawns, golf courses, and roadsides, too. (71, 72, 74)
Given that dicamba can drift, it’s especially concerning for anyone living in agricultural areas. You could be exposed to it outdoors, as well as in house dust. Farmers working around the chemical can track it indoors from the field. (74)
Dicamba has also been found in the drinking water of both cities and farming areas. The EPA has set limits for this contaminant. (74, 75)
How dicamba may affect your mitochondria
A lab study found that dicamba integrated itself into the inner membranes of mitochondria when present in high amounts. As a result, the membranes were leaky and didn’t produce energy very well. (76)
Also, plant and lab research show that dicamba can interfere with the passing of electrons to generate ATP. (76, 77)
This pesticide is used in products such as Assault and Danitron. It’s used to control tiny pests called mites. These attack the leaves and edible portions of some crops. (78, 79)
Fenpyroximate works by blocking enzymes in the mitochondria of pests. It’s said to work against mites at all three stages of life: larva, nymph, and adult. (79, 80)
Use of fenpyroximate on crops is widespread, including in the United States and more than 50 other countries. (80)
How you could be exposed to fenpyroximate
Fenpyroximate is approved for use on many types of crops, including in greenhouses. This pesticide is sprayed on several fruit and vegetable plants.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) periodically tests for pesticide residues on plant products. In a random sampling of conventionally-grown fruits, fenpyroximate residues were found on several. These included: (81)
- 19% of pears
- 6% of strawberries
- 4% of tomatoes
- 3% of grapes
Tests by the European Food Safety Authority have also shown significant fenpyroximate residues on grapes and pears, as well as apples and green beans. (82)
How fenpyroximate may affect your mitochondria
Lab studies suggest fenpyroximate may damage mitochondrial membranes and deplete energy in cells. Like several other pesticides, it trips up the “runners” in mitochondria. So, they don’t efficiently pass electrons to produce energy in the form of ATP. (83)
The mitochondrial dysfunction from fenpyroximate may happen at low levels of exposure to the chemical. But, the higher the exposure to fenpyroximate, the more ATP production declines. (84)
Fenpyroimate may also interfere with enzymes involved in eliminating damaged mitochondria. This clean-up mechanism is called mitophagy. Disrupting this may increase your risk of Parkinson’s disease. (83)
This chemical is used to control fungus on plants, such as blight and brown rot. Ziram may also be used to repel birds and small animals such as rabbits. The chemical is in pesticides sold under various brand names, such as Carbazinc and Methazate. (85, 86)
Ziram could also harm you. It may be toxic to your liver, thyroid, and nervous system. And exposure to ziram may double your risk of developing Parkinson’s disease. (86, 87)
Still, ziram is commonly used by U.S. farmers. It’s also used in Europe. But due to health risks of the pesticide, it’s being phased out of food production in Canada. (88, 89, 90)
How you could be exposed to ziram
Ziram may be used on many crops and plants. Examples include: (86, 91)
Foods: Almonds, apples, apricots, blueberries, cherries, grapes, hazelnuts, peaches, pears, pecans, strawberries, and tomatoes
Evergreens: Pine and fir trees, including those used as Christmas trees
Flowers: Marigolds, carnations, chrysanthemums, roses, and similar plants
In addition, you may encounter ziram in food packaging. It’s sometimes used in glues used to assemble food packages. (92)
Ziram is also used in other consumer products, including latex paint, rubber, neoprene (synthetic rubber), plastics, and caulk. (86, 92)
How Ziram may affect your mitochondria
Ziram may inhibit several steps of the Kreb’s cycle. That’s the first part of making energy within your cells’ mitochondria. The cycle supplies precursors needed for the electron transport chain — the process in which most energy is made. (92)
Also, lab studies show ziram can inhibit the complex chemical reactions of the electron transport chain. So, the mitochondria produce significantly less energy. (92)
In the United States, dieldrin was used to combat insects on crops like corn and cotton from 1950–1970. Then it was banned from farm use due to its high toxicity to people, animals, and the environment. (93)
In addition, many other developed countries have also banned or restrict the use of dieldrin. (94)
The pesticide is still a concern today because it doesn’t break down easily. So, it’s still prevalent in the environment, including soil, water, and air. (94)
The U.S. Agency of Toxic Substances and Disease currently ranks dieldrin 18th on a list of 275 toxic chemicals that contaminate certain regions of the country. (93, 95)
How you could be exposed to dieldrin
Up until 1987, dieldrin was permitted for killing termites in the United States. If you live in a home that was treated for termites before this ban, you could be exposed to dieldrin. (93)
Dieldrin also builds up in the environment, as well as in animals. That includes those you may eat for food. As you go up the food chain, higher levels of this chemical may be present. (93)
Dieldrin residues could lurk in dairy products, meat, and fish. One study found concerning levels in salmon, both farmed and wild-caught. The chemical could also taint root crops like carrots and potatoes if they’re grown in contaminated areas. (93, 96, 97)
How dieldrin may affect your mitochondria
The mitochondria of your cells are one of the top targets of dieldrin. The chemical causes significant mitochondrial dysfunction. (98)
An animal study found that dieldrin interfered with 18 different proteins in the electron transport chain. It increased some, decreased others, and threw off the entire energy production cycle. (98)
Protecting Your Mitochondria from Pesticides
In short, pesticides can make a mess of mitochondrial function. They can impair mitochondrial membranes, damage mitochondrial DNA, and trip up energy production.
But losing energy is only one of the problems caused by dysfunctional mitochondria. This damage also increases the risk of several diseases. So, don’t take pesticide-use lightly.
It’s also worth noting that it’s not just the pesticides that damage mitochondria. As Dr. Jay discusses in this short video, research shows that many inactive ingredients in pesticide products are more harmful to people than the pesticides themselves. (99)
Why protecting your mitochondria is important
Mitochondria do far more than power your cells. They influence the expression of your genes, turning them on or off. Your mitochondria are also involved in detoxification, brain function, and immune system regulation. (100)
When mitochondria start to fail, so do all those processes. That could have far-reaching consequences.
Mitochondrial dysfunction is linked to: (100, 101, 102)
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Parkinson’s disease
- Cardiovascular disease
Gut disorders, including constipation and diarrhea
- Faster aging
- Skin disorders
If you want to reduce your disease risk and support healing, don’t overlook the importance of protecting your mitochondria from pesticides.
How to protect your mitochondria
Pesticides are a big problem for mitochondrial health. You can take several actions to help protect these tiny energy factories.
Reduce your exposure
Because they’re so prevalent, you can’t completely avoid pesticides. But you can reduce your exposure. Some things you can do include:
Avoid GMO foods. Corn, soybeans, canola oil, and sugar beets are usually genetically modified. Remember, one of the reasons crops are modified is so they can tolerate toxic pesticides like glyphosate. If you eat foods that are commonly GMO, buy organic versions. You’ll avoid the genetic modification and the pesticides since both are against organic rules.
Choose organic food. Conventionally-grown food is often contaminated with pesticides, even if it’s not genetically modified. If you can’t afford all organic produce for your diet, at least try to buy organic for the most contaminated fruits and vegetables. The Environmental Working Group tracks the “Dirty Dozen” highest-pesticide produce.
Skip lawn and garden pesticides. They add to the contamination of the water supply. Plus, they can easily get into your house. Studies show that house dust commonly contains pesticides, including ones banned long ago. (103)
Avoid toxic bug sprays. Don’t use chemical bug sprays in your house or on your body. Some essential oils, such as eucalyptus and cinnamon, have natural insect-repellent properties. You can diffuse them or apply diluted oils to your body. (104, 105)
By avoiding products that contain pesticides, you’re sending a message to suppliers to quit making them. You’re also leading by example. This may subtly encourage your neighbors and friends to avoid the toxins, too.
Several supplements support your body’s detoxification efforts and mitochondrial health. Without consistent and effective detoxification, pesticides may build up in your body. Some helpful supplements include:
TUDCA: Your liver is the organ that neutralizes most toxins, including pesticides. These toxins are then released into bile. TUDCA is a water-soluble bile acid that helps stimulate the release of bile into your gut. That gives it an exit route from your body via your stools. (106)
BioActive Carbon: These carbon-based molecules from fulvic and humic acid extracts can bind pesticides and toxin-laden bile in your gut. This way you can excrete them in your stools. Also, some of these carbons are tiny, so they can enter your cells to help remove pesticides.
Mitochondrial support: You can buy supplements designed for mitochondrial restoration. These include ones made with fulvic and humic acid extracts. These extracts contain everything your mitochondria need to rebuild and repair.
N-acetyl cysteine (NAC): This amino acid-derivative is a building block for glutathione. That’s your body’s most potent antioxidant. Glutathione could help protect your mitochondria and cells from the free radicals that pesticides generate. (107)
All these strategies could go a long way toward shielding your hard-working mitochondria from the perils of toxic pesticides.
Pesticides and Your Future
Unfortunately, pesticides are prevalent in the environment and the food supply.
These toxic chemicals can damage your mitochondria and deplete cellular energy. Pesticides may also pave the way for serious illnesses like cancer and Parkinson’s disease.
But thankfully, that’s not the end of the story.
You can reduce your pesticide exposure through your food choices, as well as the choices you make for your home.
In addition, you can take supplements to help your body detoxify these harmful chemicals and restore mitochondrial function.
Take your future health into your own hands by protecting your mitochondria. What actions will you take today to guard your mitochondria from pesticides?