Pesticides are a ubiquitous toxin in our environment. We spray them liberally on ants and spiders in our homes, use them in our gardens and on our lawns, fog our streets with them to kill mosquitoes-even spread them on our own bodies to keep bugs away.
Farmers use 1.5 billion pounds of pesticides every year-and most have been found by the EPA to be carcinogenic.
But that’s not all. American farmers use 1.5 billion pounds of pesticides each year-that’s 1.5 billion pounds of pesticides sprayed onto the food that we, and our children, eat. And it’s not just fruits and vegetables; meats contain pesticides too because the animals eat feed that has been heavily sprayed.
Plus, pesticides are used in many consumer products, including paints, cosmetics, food packaging, fabrics, carpets and exercise mats. And they’re used extensively in parks and other recreational areas-golf courses are some of the biggest offenders; in one year they use seven or eight times the pesticides used on a comparable sized area of agricultural land.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has registered close to 900 pesticides, which are formulated into over 20,000 products, according to the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides.
Some 60 percent of herbicides, 90 percent of fungicides and 30 percent of insecticides are known to be carcinogenic, says the EPA, and these pesticides contaminate our groundwater, our air and the very food we eat.
What Are the Health Effects of All These Pesticides?
Animal and human studies on individual pesticides have shown that they contribute to an alarming number of health problems like:
* Fertility problems
* Brain tumors
* Childhood leukemia
* Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
* Birth defects
* Irritation to skin and eyes
* Hormone or endocrine system problems
* Nervous system damage
Children are especially at risk from the toxic effects of pesticides. Their bodies are still developing and immature, making them susceptible to such damage. In fact, studies by the National Academy of Sciences and the Environmental Working Group have found that children exposed to carcinogenic pesticides are at a high risk of future cancer and other studies determined that pesticide use was associated with an increased risk of childhood malignancies.
Knowing this information, think, then, just how outrageous it is that we shampoo our children with pesticides to kill head lice.
But all of these negative effects have been found largely from studies that typically focus on one individual pesticide. Who, then, is studying the cumulative effects on the body of all the various pesticides we’re exposed to, and that we consume, over years?
The EPA’s Testing Pesticides on Kids?
That kids are so vulnerable to pesticide exposure is precisely why the EPA chose them to study, and back in October 2004, they were given $2.1 million to do just that. Who were the granters of this large sum? The American Chemistry Council, a chemical industry front group with such big wigs as Monsanto, Exxon and Dow.
The two-year study-called the Children’s Environmental Exposure Research Study (CHEERS)-would monitor infants in low-income families to determine how chemicals can be ingested, inhaled or absorbed by babies to children up to age 3, as well as the health effects they would cause.
Families in the EPA’s CHEERS pesticide study would receive a t-shirt, video camcorder, bib, calendar, framed certificate, newsletter and $970.
Surprisingly, the EPA chose to name the entirely serious study a flippant “CHEERS.” Study participants would receive $970, a t-shirt, a bib for their baby, a calendar, a newsletter, a framed certificate of appreciation and a video camcorder.
While the study does not require participants to change the level of pesticides in their home, nor does it expose them to any additional chemicals, it does require that they demonstrate a use of these toxic products in their home. Opponents are concerned that low-income families will up their pesticides use just to be involved in the study.
They also noted that since the study is partially industry-funded, it represents a conflict of interest. Most effects of pesticides are seen in the long-term, so it is unlikely that adverse effects will be seen during the short-term study. The result would be that the chemical industry could then claim an EPA study found their pesticides safe and push for looser regulations for their use.
Said EPA Pesticide Scientist Troy Pierce, “This does sound like it goes against everything we recommend at EPA concerning use of [pesticides] related to children. Paying families in Florida to have their homes routinely treated with pesticides is very sad when we at EPA know that [pesticide management] should always be used to protect children.”
In November 2004 the study was postponed, largely because of the public controversy that arose around it, for a “final review” but is scheduled to resume in spring 2005.
It is certainly a step in the right direction that the EPA is taking strides to study the effects of pesticides that we’re all exposed to. However, their proposed “compensation” for participating in this very serious study includes some gimmicky items: a free t-shirt, bib and calendar? And it even has a gimmicky name (CHEERS?), which may explain why the public was so alarmed when it appeared an industry-funded study was seeking to draw in low-income families to monitor their use of chemicals that the government already knows are toxic.
What’s the Good News?
There is good news in all of this, and that is: It is possible to reduce your exposure to pesticides (though, admittedly, you probably can’t reduce it to zero). The top ways to do this include:
Buy certified organic fruits, vegetables and meats (be sure to wash produce, particularly commercially grown produce, thoroughly before eating using a diluted soap solution)
Avoid the use of toxic pesticides in your home and yard (opt for natural pesticides that you can find in your local health food store instead)
Don’t use pesticides for aesthetic purposes like dandelions in your lawn
* Don’t use chemical bug repellants or lice shampoos