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Nation's Pediatricians Warn Against Pesticides in Food

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The American Academy of Pediatrics has taken the unprecedented step of issuing a policy statement that calls on the government, schools, parents and medical professionals to take concerted action to protect children from pesticides.  

The prestigious 60,000-member physicians organization rarely involves itself in politics and governmental affairs. Its decision to sound alarms against pesticides appears motivated by the growing body of scientific evidence that links these toxic chemicals not only to outright poisoning but also to subtle and sometimes life-altering health problems to which children are especially vulnerable.

James R. Roberts, MD, MDH, one of the lead authors of the study, told EWG: "I can say that it is the first technical report and the first policy statement the AAP has ever published on pesticide exposure."

"Children encounter pesticides daily and have unique susceptibilities to their potential toxicity," says the pediatricians' statement, released November 26. " Acute poisoning risks are clear, and understanding of chronic health implications from both acute and chronic exposure are emerging. Epidemiologic evidence demonstrates associations between early life exposure to pesticides and pediatric cancers, decreased cognitive function, and behavioral problems."

The group issued a long list of recommended actions:

  • Pediatricians need better training on pesticides' effects, treatment of acute poisoning, ways of addressing more prevalent lower dose chronic exposures in children and pesticide labeling. 
  • They should advise parents on pesticide use at home and in the yard.
  • Doctors should work with schools and government agencies "to advocate for the least toxic methods of pest control, and to inform communities when pesticides are being used in the area."

The policy statement also makes nine recommendation government action on marketing, labeling, use and safety of pesticides to minimize children's exposure.

An accompanying scfic report, Pesticides Pose Serious Risks to Children, published in the prestigious scientific journal Pediatrics, highlights various risks for children, including those living or working on farms and those at risk of acute poisonings or chronic exposures to pesticides used in houses, daycare centers and schools, exposures in utero and exposure through food and drinking water.

"For many children, diet may be the most influential source of pesticides," the report said.

On October 22, the organization's Council on Environmental Health released a related report that said, "organic diets have been convincingly demonstrated to expose consumers to fewer pesticides associated with human disease." 

That study recommended that parents use EWG's Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce to help reduce children's consumption of hazardous crop chemicals. EWG Shopper's Guide advises consumers which coionally raised produce items are highest and lowest in pesticide residues, according to federal government tests conducted annually by the US Department of Agriculture.

Chemical agribusiness spokespeople, including those with the Alliance for Food and Farming, contend that low-level exposures to pesticides pose no risks to human health.

The American Academy of Pediatricians clearly disagrees. Its policy statement, crafted in the measured scientific language, expresses its members' deep concern about the sometimes-irreversible damage that pesticides may be doing to their young patients:

The evidence base is most robust for associations to pediatric cancer and adverse neurodevelopment. Multiple case-control studies and evidence reviews support a role for insecticides in risk of brain tumors and acute lymphocytic leukemia. Prospective contemporary birth cohort studies in the United States link early-life exposure to organophosphate insecticides with reductions in IQ and abnormal behaviors associated with attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder and autism.  

The pediatricians call for more study, and well they should. But it is their call to action that is most striking.   

Having such an esteemed group of physicians as the Academy expressing this level of urgency over the risks that pesticides pose to children's health further bolsters the position of many public health and environmental organizations that have worked to reduce children's dietary exposure. 

EWG alone has spent nearly 20 years conducting research and providing tools people can use to help minimize their exposures to various toxic chemicals, including pesticides in food.

Some of EWG's earliest research and advocacy spearheaded by EWG President and Co-founder Ken Cook, among others, played a significant role in the passage of the landmark 1996 Food Quality Protection Act, cited in the Academy's report. The law for the first time required the Environmental Protection Agency to act to protect infant and child health against pesticide risks, even in the absence of total scientific certainty regarding toxicity or exposure, to the fetus, infant or young child.

Parents and pediatricians should regard the Academy's newfound urgency around pesticide risks just as seriously. And remember these doctors' words when you hear spokespeople from the pesticide industry and chemical agriculture trying to convince us that it's perfectly safe to consume these toxic chemicals in the food we eat.