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Chemical Pesticide Exposure and Effects on Children

graphic of girl on swing Children can be pests at times—especially other people's children. On a hot summer day, we might spray them with the garden hose, but we would never spray anything toxic on our lovable little kid-pests. Unfortunately, there are other ways that children come into contact with pesticides, many of which can be easily absorbed into their bodies. Is this a problem, and if it is, what can we do about it?

Human Effects of Pesticides

Pesticides are manufactured for a wide variety of purposes, and they come with a wide variety of side effects on the endocrine, nervous, and immune systems of human beings. Adults are susceptible to these effects, but children are even more likely to suffer negative effects from pesticide exposure because of their lower body weight, their less developed immune and detoxification systems, and the fact that they're still growing. Children may be exposed picture of two-year-olds in baby pool on lawn to pesticides from residues in food, in their homes or yards, or in schools, parks, and playgrounds. Pesticides are even starting to turn up in our freshwater supplies.

In and around homes, children spend more time than adults on floors and lawns, where pesticide residues are often found in high concentrations. Pesticides also don't always stay where they are applied. The Non-Occupational Pesticide Exposure Study found that even in households identified as "low-use homes," the air contained up to 5 pesticides.

Is Chemical Pesticide Exposure a Problem for YOUR Children?

If you're thinking that this may a problem for other parents but not for you, don't be so sure. In a study done in Arkansas, urine samples from a group of approximately 200 children contained pesticides in nearly all samples tested. In the Minnesota Children's Exposure Study, the US EPA found a major metabolite of chlorpyrifos, a commonly used insecticide, in 98% of the participating children's urine samples.

In 2004, Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA) presented an analysis of pesticide-related data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The results showed that many US residents carry toxic pesticides in their bodies at levels above the government's "acceptable" thresholds. Many of the pesticides found in the test subjects have been linked to serious short- and long-term health effects, including infertility, birth defects, and childhood and adult cancers.

For some pesticides, children's body burdens may vary by diet type. A University of Washington study found that children fed mostly organic produce and juice had only one-sixth the level of organophosphate picture of children playing on lawn pesticide byproducts in their urine compared to children who ate conventionally grown foods. The difference was statistically significant, with the children who ate conventional diets having levels above the amount considered to be "negligible risk" by the EPA but the children who ate mostly organic diets having levels below the negligible-risk threshold.

The effects of pesticides may not be immediate, and when they do occur, they may be subtle (or blamed on other causes). How much pesticide exposure a child can take before it begins to affect him or her varies—factors include the level of exposure and the type of chemicals involved, as well as the child's constitution and nutritional status. But it's clear that less pesticide exposure is better.

Reducing Exposure to Pesticides

What can you do to protect yourself and your family?

  • Minimize or eliminate the use of chemical pesticides on your lawn and around your house:
    • Your lawn: Learn to love clover (which will actually make your lawn greener if you leave it alone!); pull dandelions by hand; use preventative measures and least-toxic methods to control lawn and garden pests.
    • Your home: Never use routine preventive spraying. Take exclusion and sanitation measures to avoid pest problems. When they do arise, use least-toxic methods to address them.
    • TOOLS: Get alternative pest control tips from NCAP or get tips on hiring a least-toxic exterminator on Beyond Pesticides' Safety Source pages
  • Check with your school district to find out their policy on using pesticides. If they're not using true Integrated Pest Management and least-toxic methods, start a campaign to insist that they do.
    • TOOLS: See the report Safer Schools at the School Pesticide Reform Coalition's web site
  • Eat organic food as much as possible. If your grocery store doesn't carry much in the way of organics, ask them to start.
    • TOOLS: Use LocalHarvest to find organic stores, farmers markets, and CSAs near you

Ingestion or inhalation may seem like the most obvious ways pesticides might end up inside your child, but many chemicals, including pesticides, can be absorbed through the skin. (Remember how "the patch" can be used as a delivery system for certain pharmaceuticals.) When children crawl around on treated lawns or carpets, they may be absorbing pesticides.

Publish date: 01-JUL-2004

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  book cover for Raising Healthy Children in a Toxic World, by Phillip Landrigan, Herbert Needleman, Mary Landrigan, 3/1/2003

Your home is the focal point of your child's life—it's where he learns to crawl, where he eats and sleeps, where he plays. Home represents a safe haven for him ... yet just how safe is it? Even if your home is brand new, it might not be as safe as you think it is. Get 101 suggestions for reducing your child's harmful exposures. (by Phillip Landrigan, Herbert Needleman, Mary Landrigan )

  book cover for Ask the Bugman!, Apr-2002

Environmentally Safe Ways to Control Household Pests

Whether it's mice, ants, termites, or pests in the yard, the Bugman provides the most environmentally friendly solution. The Integrated Pest Management approach includes habitat modification, improved sanitation, least-toxic methods, and pest-specific baits. (by Richard Fagerlund)

  book cover for How to Get Your Lawn and Garden Off Drugs, by Carole Rubin, Mar-2003

A Basic Guide To Pesticide Free Gardening in North America

Helpful to anyone needing practical how-to information regarding pesticide-free gardening, soil health, lawn care, and how to deal with pests and plant diseases in a non-toxic manner. Well suited to newbies who just want to try it without having to go hippie. (by Carole Rubin)


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"The body of evidence in scientific literature shows that pesticide exposure can adversely affect a child's neurological, respiratory, immune, and endocrine systems, even at low levels. Several pesticides, such as pyrethrins and pyrethroids, organophosphates and carbamates, are also known to cause or exacerbate asthma symptoms."

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