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Widespread use of pesticides is creating a ‘generation in jeopardy,’ report warns

“From childhood cancers to autism, birth defects and asthma, a wide range of childhood diseases and disorders are on the rise,” the report says, adding that “pesticides are one key driver of this sobering trend.”

The widespread use of pesticides in homes and on farms is undermining our children’s health.
CC/Flickr/Scott Butner

The widespread use of pesticides in homes and on farms is undermining our children’s health and creating a “generation in jeopardy,” according to a report released Wednesday by the California-based Pesticide Action Network (PAN).

“Children today are sicker than they were a generation ago,” says the report. “From childhood cancers to autism, birth defects and asthma, a wide range of childhood diseases and disorders are on the rise. Our assessment of the latest science leaves little room for doubt: pesticides are one key driver of this sobering trend.”

That assessment involved looking at dozens of studies published within the past five years that examined the effects of pesticides on children’s health. In the report, PAN describes the research linking pesticides to birth defects, early puberty and childhood cancers. The report also discusses the studies that have begun to associate pesticides with some of the recent rise in the incidence of childhood asthma, obesity and diabetes.

But perhaps the most compelling evidence to date are the studies linking pesticides — even at low doses — to conditions that affect the brain and nervous system, such as autism and attention deficit hyperactivity (ADHD), as well as declines in IQ and increases in learning disabilities.

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“The National Academy of Sciences now estimates that about one third of all neurobehavioral disorders (such as autism and ADHD) are caused either directly by pesticides and other chemicals or by interaction between environmental exposures and genetics,” notes the report. “Some experts say this estimate is likely to be low, as the health profession is just beginning to fully recognize the contributions of environmental factors to disease formation.”

‘A preventable contributer’

Dr. David Wallinga
Dr. David Wallinga

“Pesticides contribute to a lot of these things. We know that. And we know that they are a preventable contributer,” said Dr. David Wallinga, a senior advisor in science, food and health for the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), in a phone interview Wednesday. His organization was not involved in the writing of the report, but it has been active in publicizing its release.

Organophosphates — pesticides commonly used by commercial growers of fruits and vegetables — are a “particularly nasty group” of neurotoxic chemicals, he said.

Research has shown, he said, that for each tenfold increase in the level of organophosphate in the urine of a pregnant woman, the risk of having a child with autism doubles and the risk of having a child with ADHD goes up fivefold.

One of the organophosphates highlighted in the PAN report is chlorpyrifos, which was once among the most commonly used household pesticides in the United States. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned its use in homes in 2001 for safety reasons, although it is still widely used in agriculture. In Minnesota, sales of chlorpyritos almost doubled from 1996 to 2009, according to Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) data. Earlier this year, the MDA announced that chlorpyritos was a “pesticide of concern” because it is being detected with increasing frequency and at elevated concentrations in Minnesota’s surface water.

A study in New York City found that infants most exposed to chlorpyrifos in utero were significantly more likely to have pervasive developmental disorders — including autism — by the time they were three years old,” notes the PAN report.

The report also points to a Minnesota study, coauthored by Wallinga, that “explored the interaction of exposure to organophosphate pesticides, gene expression and dietary factors as potential contributors to autism” and found, among other things, “that mineral deficiencies linked to high fructose corn syrup consumption make developing minds more susceptible to the neurotoxic effects of pesticides.” (High fructose corn syrup is, of course, a sweetener used in many processed foods and beverages.)

“Certain kinds of chemicals, where the science is super strong, we should just get rid of them,” said Wallinga. “Why take them out of the home environment but leave them in the rural community environment?”

Of course, figuring out pesticides’ contribution to the recent rise in certain childhood diseases and disorders is difficult. So many other factors, such as genetics, diet, physical activity (or lack of it) and other types of environmental toxins, have also been implicated. And with some disorders, such as autism, some of the increase in the incidence rate can be attributed to wider awareness and broader definitions of the disorder.

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But just because pesticides may not be the only reason children today are sicker than they were a generation ago, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take steps to reduce our children’s exposure to them, said Wallinga.

“How can you pick out one thing when they all are part of a healthy environment?” he asked. “They interact with each other. Kids are not laboratory animals. You can’t control for one thing in the environment.”

Recommendations for reducing exposure

Parents can take several steps to reduce their children’s exposure to pesticides, beginning with making sure that none of their household or garden products contain harmful chemicals, said Linda Wells, PAN’s Midwest organizer, in an interview with MinnPost. (For tips on how to make your home and garden pesticide-free, go to the PAN website.)

Parents can also work in their communities to make sure that schools, day-care centers and other places children gather, like local parks, are pesticide-free, said Wells.

“[O]f the 40 pesticides most commonly used in schools,” notes the PAN report, “28 are probable or possible carcinogens, 26 have been shown to cause reproductive effects, 26 damage the nervous system, and 13 have been linked to birth defects.”

Efforts to reduce pesticides at schools and elsewhere are gaining momentum, said Wells. In the Twin Cities, for example, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board is taking steps to phase out the use of certain chemicals, including pesticides, from several locations where children play. And part of the White Earth Land Recovery Project is the promotion of access to fresh, local and organic food, including in the schools.

But those are small steps given the huge challenge. As the PAN report points out, some 1.1 billion pounds of pesticides from more than 20,000 different products are applied to farms and homes annually.

“There is a certain amount that parents can do in their buying habits, but really, this is a policy matter,” said Wells.

Wallinga agrees. “All the change can’t be shouldered on parents,” he said. “That’s not fair.”

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“It’s particularly not fair for families who are already suffering a lot of stresses, whether economic or other,” he added.

The PAN report recommends several policy reforms to reduce pesticide use, including giving the FDA and other governmental agencies more authority to quickly remove pesticides from the market when independent studies show they’re harmful to children; establishing pesticide-free buffer zones around schools, day-care centers and residential neighborhoods in agriculture areas; giving schools more incentives to serve food grown without pesticides; and providing more governmental funding for programs that support farmers who are willing to reduce their use of harmful pesticides.

Both Wallinga and Wells would also like to see Minnesota become a “right-to-know” state in regards to pesticides, like California. “When any pesticide is being used in California,” said Wells, “people in the area know what is being used and when.”

Minnesotans do not have access to that information, she added. “They can see the pesticides being used, but they don’t know what they’re being exposed to,” she said. “And right now they don’t have the right to find out.”

You can download the PAN report from the organization’s website.