Gardening may not be on the minds of most Americans as cold temperatures continue to persist across much of the country.
But when the warmer temperatures move in and everyone wants to get outside, making sure to use safe lawn and garden products is important. The chemicals found in some of those products can be harmful to your health.
A study published last month in Chemical Research in Toxicology found that chemicals in some gardening products and insecticides can affect melatonin receptors and put humans at a higher risk for metabolic diseases, including diabetes.
“Exposure to these chemicals could put people at higher risk for diabetes and also affect circadian rhythms,” Rajendram Rajnarayanan, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the University at Buffalo in New York who served on the research team, told Healthline.
“This is the first report demonstrating how environmental chemicals found in household products interact with human melatonin receptors,” Margarita L. Dubocovich, Ph.D., a professor at the University at Buffalo in New York, said in a statement.
Dubocovich is a renowned authority on melatonin receptor regulation. Her work has expanded the understanding of how melatonin affects human health, including sleep disorders, metabolic disease, and drug addiction.
Looking at toxic chemicals
Carbaryl, a popular insecticide used in the United States, but banned in several countries, is one of the chemicals in the study. It has been linked to declining bee populations.
The study’s other chemical, carbofuran, is a toxic carbamate insecticide that has been banned for use on food crops in the United States since 2009, but is still used in many countries, including Mexico.
“We found that both insecticides are structurally similar to melatonin and that both showed affinity for the melatonin MT2 receptors that can potentially affect glucose homeostasis and insulin secretion,” said Marina Popovska-Gorevski, who co-authored the study while a student at the University at Buffalo.
“That means that exposure to them could put people at higher risk for diabetes and also affect sleeping patterns,” Popovska-Gorevski said.
As of now, federal agencies do not assess environmental chemicals for their ability to disrupt circadian activity — something highlighting the importance of this study, Rajnarayanan added.
Other disrupters lurk
These aren’t the only chemicals that can affect the human body, though.
Rajnarayanan said Bisphenol A (BPA) and DDT are known to disrupt the endocrine system and even cause cancer.
“Some of the insecticides do tend to persist in the environment and have the potential to bypass metabolism and chemical breakdown,” he said. “Exposure to these chemicals does more harm than those that are broken down chemically or by our body rapidly.”
A 2014 study in Environmental Pollution found insecticides known as neonicotinoids (similar to nicotine) that were used on soy and corn crops were commonly found in streams throughout the Midwest.
Another article in Neurology linked DDT exposure to an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. A year earlier, an Environmental Health Perspectives report linked the chemical to endometriosis.
In 2015, more research tied these chemicals to infertility and low sperm count.
Rajnarayanan said his team is developing a test that could detect environmental toxicity and circadian disruption activity to establish potential health risks of other chemicals they have compiled into a database.
His study was funded to pinpoint new environmental diabetogens (chemicals that can cause diabetes) and obesogens (chemicals that can cause obesity). Research on them is “a relatively new research area,” he said.
Don’t be afraid to tend to your garden, but do keep an eye on labels.
“Not all insecticides are bad for us,” Rajnarayanan said. “However it is imperative to study the chemicals that are extensively in use, especially the ones that can get into our air, food, and water.”
Using organic products could be an alternative to harmful chemicals, but they may not be as effective for extensive farming practices.
John F. Tooker, Ph.D., an associate professor at Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences, said some data show things like spiders can do a good job controlling pest insects in crop fields. This is part of the practice known as integrated pest management.
“The main way to do that is to avoid unnecessary insecticide applications,” he told Healthline.
Rajnarayanan said that scientists can provide data and examine risks, but regulators and policy makers will need to get involved to advise people on risk factors.