Ten years ago a consumer revolt against alar, a carcinogenic ripening agent used on apples, resulted in a government ban on the chemical largely due to concerns about its possible effects on children. According to the Environmental Working Group, a highly respected Washington D.C. based environmental organisation, “Nothing’s changed. Children’s foods are just as contaminated with unsafe levels of pesticides. The government knows this, and is dragging its heels, protecting chemicals instead of kids.”
Here are the facts, based on the American government’s own data about what kids eat and the levels of pesticides they are exposed to in their food.
More than 1/4 million children aged 1 through 5 consume as many as 20 different pesticides daily. More than one million preschool children consume levels of pesticides that the government considers unsafe, putting them at long-term risk of nerve damage, reproductive system failure, birth defects, and other chronic health problems,
Preschoolers are more heavily exposed to pesticides than adults because they eat more of certain foods that are sources of pesticides: 30 times more apple juice, 21 times more grape juice, 7 times more orange juice.
Government tests show that raspberries, strawberries, apples and peaches grown in the United States and cantaloupe from Mexico are the foods most contaminated with pesticides.
The least contaminated fruit are watermelon, bananas, kiwi, pineapple, and domestic canteloupe, but organic food, grown without the use of chemicals, is the safest choice of all.
Young children pick up pesticides not only in their food but also playing on the ground and floor – increasing their risks.
The special needs of children for protection against pesticide exposure was recognised in the passage of the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA) of 1996. The FQPA changed the standard by which the EPA determines pesticide tolerances, (the highest amounts of residues allowed in food). The most important changes were new requirements for the protection of infants and children from pesticide damage to their developing neurological and reproductive systems.
“The FQPA was a good law, but the EPA’s determination to enforce the law has withered under industry pressure,” says Todd Helterbach, of the Environmental Working Group (EWG). A report published by the EWG on pesticide abuse called “Attack of the Killer Weeds”, also states “the EPA has yet to implement the full children’s health requirements of FQPA for even one of the approximately 300 pesticides that are used in more than 20 000 products.
Even worse, use of a provision in the law, which allows EPA to grant an “emergency” exemption from pesticide health and safety standards, has doubled between 1993 and 1998. The EWG calls this “Little more than a loophole through which pesticide companies market their products while avoiding the children’s health and safety requirements of the law.”
Until the government does a better job of protecting children, here are some things you can do to reduce your child’s pesticide exposure:
• Buy organic food and products wherever possible.
• Don’t let your kids play on lawns treated with pesticides.
• Remove shoes, Japanese style, in your home. Pesticide residues cling to shoes and are transferred to your carpet where kids and pets play.
• Keep any pesticides used in and around your home in a safe place, or better yet, switch to non-chemical ways to handle household pests.
• Even the staid Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, has called for a ban on risky pesticides that are unsafe for children, whether used on food, in homes, at schools, or in other places where children are likely to be exposed.
As Rachel Carson noted 35 years ago in a passage that could have been written today:
“The choice, after all, is ours to make. If, after having endured so much, we have at least asserted our ‘right to know’, and knowing, we have concluded that we are being asked to take senseless and frightening risks, then we should no longer accept the counsel of those who tell us that we must fill our world with poisonous chemicals; we should look about and see what other courses are open to us.”
Silent Spring, 1962