Worried About Pesticide Exposure? Here’s What You Need to Know
Here’s how you can protect yourself and your family from these potentially harmful chemicals.
The Trump administration is pushing for a change in how the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) decides which pesticides and other chemicals are harmful to people.
The government’s proposal, called Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science, would limit the use of human epidemiological studies in the EPA’s rule-making.
Supporters reportedly say the move would make the data from these studies more publicly available.
But critics contend that it would pressure researchers to release the identities of study participants, a tactic used by the tobacco industry to undermine research on the hazards of smoking.
The rule is still under review, but some health experts say we already know enough about the dangers of pesticides to act, especially when it comes to protecting kids.
“While evidence is conflicting about some of the long-term effects of pesticides on children, there’s enough evidence to warrant further research into the use of pesticides. In the meantime, [we can] limit the exposure of children to such chemicals,” said Dr. Amanda Fifi, a pediatric gastroenterologist and nutrition specialist at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
The health effects of pesticides depend on the chemical, how much you’re exposed to, and for how long. Potential risks include cancer and problems with the nervous system or hormones.
Fifi said children are more at risk than adults “because their growing bodies are more susceptible to the effects of toxins.”
Kids also eat more food per pound of body weight than adults, so they get a bigger “dose” of pesticides in food.
And they’re more likely to pick up pesticides from contaminated floors, carpets, or lawns where they crawl or play, or from toys or other objects that they put in their mouth.
With a few simple steps, you can limit your and your family’s exposure to potentially harmful pesticides.
Choose safer fruits and vegetables
Fruits and vegetables are an important part of a healthy diet. But they can also be contaminated with pesticide residues, even after you wash or peel them.
The nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG) analyzed data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and found that about 70 percent of samples of conventionally grown produce contained pesticide residues.
You can reduce your exposure by choosing organic produce — which are grown without the use of pesticides.
“Eat organic fruits and vegetables,” said Fifi. “Kids fed organic fruits and veggies for a week had reduced urinary concentrations of pesticides after that week.”
When organic isn’t an option, EWG has a Shopper’s Guide to help you choose conventionally grown produce with the lowest levels of pesticide residues.
EWG’s 2018 Dirty Dozen list of items that contain the highest amounts of pesticide residues includes:
strawberriesspinachnectarinesapplesgrapespeachescherriespearstomatoescelerypotatoessweet bell peppers
At the other end of the spectrum, the Clean Fifteen had relatively few pesticide residues:
avocadosweet cornpineapplecabbageonionsfrozen sweet peaspapayaasparagusmangoeggplanthoneydewkiwifruitcantaloupecauliflowerbroccoli
Fifi said that washing or peeling conventionally grown fruits and vegetables can get rid of some of the pesticides on them.
Likewise, trimming fat from meat can also eliminate unwanted pesticides.
Avoid pesticides in your environment
Fruits and vegetables aren’t the only source of pesticides.
These chemicals also show up in insect repellents, pest control products, lawn and garden care products, and pet products. Many of these are used in and around home or school.
To reduce your risk, Fifi recommended that you limit your personal use of pesticides whenever possible.
For pest control, this can be done by “keeping surroundings clean, securing trash, manually removing weeds, and using mechanical traps,” she said.
The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests on HealthyChildren.org that you store and use household and garden pesticides safely, including keeping them out of the hands of children.
Parents can also bring up the topic of pesticides at school and community meetings and “demand the limiting of pesticide use near schools and parks that children frequent,” said Fifi.
Well water is another potential source of pesticides in the home.
“Up to 33 percent of underground wells used for major water supply were found to have detectable levels of pesticides,” said Fifi.
If you drink from a well, you can have it tested for the presence of pesticides. Some states even offer free testing. More information can be found at the National Pesticide Information Center.
Be safe on the job
People who work with or around pesticides, such as agricultural or landscape workers, are especially at risk for exposure to harmful pesticides.
Additionally, their families can also face increased risk.
“Reports have found higher levels of pesticides in urine of kids whose parents worked in agriculture,” said Fifi, “and also higher levels in kids living near agricultural plants.”
Workers can take steps to reduce their exposure, including:
obeying signs to stay out of areas treated with pesticideswearing long-sleeved shirts, long pants, and a hat or scarf while on the jobwashing hands before eating, drinking, using the toilet, or talking on the phoneshowering with soap and shampoo after work, then putting on clean clotheswashing work clothes separately from other clothes before wearing them againtaking work shoes off before entering the house to keep from bringing pesticides inside
If you have questions about common pesticide exposures, talk to your child’s pediatrician. The National Capital Poison Center, whose 24-hour toll-free number is 800-222-1222, can also answer questions about acute exposures to pesticides.