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Environmental connections to public health >>

Pesticides: Testing, Kids, Regulation and You

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

It's hardly news that pesticides can be dangerous and are very worth avoiding - both for your health and the environment.

But when your friends and family ask why you bother, having a solid grasp of the reasons to avoid them is always handy:

Pesticides and your health: What's the problem? As acknowledged by the U.S. and international government agencies, different pesticides have been linked with a variety of toxic effects, including:

  • Nervous system effects
  • Carcinogenic effects
  • Hormone system effects
  • Skin, eye and lung irritation

Pesticides are unique among the chemicals we release into the environment; they have inherent toxicity because they are designed to kill living organisms: insects, plants, and fungi that are considered "pests." Because they are toxic by design, many pesticides pose health risks to people, risks that have been acknowledged by independent research scientists and physicians across the world.

The majority of the U.S. population has detectable concentrations of multiple pesticide residues in their bodies, as detected in biomonitoring studies by scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The ubiquitous pesticide exposures are further compounded by exposure to hundreds of industrial chemicals that contaminate human bodies and are even found in the developing fetus.

The full health effects of exposure to these mixtures of chemicals are not yet known; true public health protection would require a consideration of cumulative risks of exposure to multiple toxic chemicals at a time.

Children are especially at risk Protecting our families' health from chemical exposures can start with minimizing children's exposure to pesticides. It is now well established that pesticides pose a risk to vital organ systems that continue to grow and mature from conception throughout infancy and childhood. Exposure to pesticides and other toxic chemicals during critical periods of development can have lasting adverse effects both in early development and later in life.

The metabolism, physiology, and biochemistry of a fetus, infant or child are fundamentally different from those of adults; a young, organism is often less able to metabolize and inactivate toxic chemicals and can be much more vulnerable to the harmful effects of pesticides. The nervous system, brain, reproductive organs and endocrine (hormone) system can be permanently, if subtly, damaged by exposure to toxic substances in-utero or throughout early childhood that, at the same level, cause no measurable harm to adults.

The developing brain and endocrine system are very sensitive, and low doses at a susceptible moment of development can cause more of an effect than high doses. It is especially important to reduce pesticide exposures of babies and young children so as to minimize these risks.

"Lack of data" does not equal safety Even in the face of a growing body of evidence, pesticide manufacturers continue to defend their products, claiming that the amounts of pesticides on produce are not sufficient to elicit safety concerns. Yet, such statements are often made in the absence of actual data, since most safety tests done for regulatory agencies are not designed to discover whether low dose exposures to mixtures of pesticides and other toxic chemicals are safe, particularly during critical periods of development.

In general, the government demands, and companies conduct, high-dose studies designed to find gross, obvious toxic effects. In the absence of the appropriate tests at lower doses, pesticide and chemical manufacturers claim safety since the full effects of exposure to these mixtures of chemicals have not been conclusively demonstrated (or even studied).

Doesn't the government regulate these chemicals? When consumers realize the magnitude of the health threat posed by pesticides, they naturally wonder: Doesn't the government regulate these toxic chemicals? The answer is that, unfortunately for human and environmental health, government action has been far too slow. It is important to remember that the government said that highly toxic pesticides like DDT, chlordane, dursban and others were safe right up to the day the EPA banned them. And considering that we are talking about toxic chemicals whose effects on children's health may be irreversible, no delay is justifiable.

The Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 was designed to require protection of infants and children from pesticides. This law produced several notable achievements and fundamentally improved the health standards in pesticide law by requiring explicit protection of infants and children. But a lot remains to be done, especially in protecting human health from pesticide mixtures and chemicals that have endocrine disrupting properties. Not surprisingly, pesticide makers and agribusiness groups have been fighting strict application of the statute, particularly provisions that require an extra 10-fold level of protection for infants and children.

What can I do to reduce my risk? Addressing the risks of pesticide exposure first and foremost requires information, which is frequently made unavailable to the general public by the government agencies. To counteract this trend for secrecy, EWG believes that:

  • People have a right to know what's in their food, so they can choose foods with less pesticides.
  • The government can and should take steps to dramatically reduce the number and amount of toxic chemicals, including pesticides, in the food supply.

Each of us can opt for food safety today by choosing to purchase produce low in pesticides and by buying organically-raised fruits and vegetables as frequently as possible. With this first step we can protect our families' health and preserve our own future and the future of the environment from the harmful effects of pesticides.

Get EWG's Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce to identify which fruits and veggies are low and high in pesticide residues and take it to the store with you today. Choose a wallet guide or iPhone app, whichever works for you.

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