Pesticides – are they good or are they evil? The use of herbicides and insecticides has allowed for the mass production of food and the control of mosquito-born diseases such as yellow fever and malaria. They prevent crops from being destroyed by infestations and they prevent deaths from West Nile virus. Those are good things, right? Unfortunately, pesticides are man-made chemicals that can make us sick. Exposure to high levels, such as when pesticide applicators spill liquid on skin or when a child gets into the containers under the sink, has resulted in severe reactions and hospitalizations. We know that some pesticides cause cancer in lab animals. Farmers and their families have higher rates of certain cancers. Children exposed to pesticides while still in utero or in early childhood over time show poorer performance on neurologic tests.
In the home, pesticides are some of the most dangerous products we use. In 2007 over 70,000 calls were made to Poison Control Centers from parents concerned about their children’s exposure to pesticides, usually from accidental ingestion. If a child swallows liquid pesticide, plays on a recently treated lawn, or tumbles around with a pet wearing a new flea collar, symptoms such as trembling, nausea, dizziness, and tingling may occur. Higher doses can lead to respiratory arrest and death.
And what about pesticide residues in our food? Studies have concluded that eating typical fruits and vegetables from the produce section results in low levels of pesticides in our bodies, detected in the blood stream and urine. Continuous low level exposure over time probably leads to health effects such as disruption of the endocrine system (early onset of menstruation, infertility, thyroid diseases), nervous system disorders (multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease), and cancers (leukemia, lymphoma). Foods with thick peels or rinds (such as oranges) have lower levels of pesticides than those without (such as strawberries and apples). Certified organic foods do not contain pesticides.
What to do?
For any suspected ingestion of pesticides, call your local Poison Control Center or the national poison hotline at 1-800-222-1222.
Keep all pesticides locked up, out of reach of children.
Always follow application instructions exactly as they are printed.
Do not transfer the contents of a pesticide product into an unlabeled container.
Follow Integrated Pest Management techniques for managing pests in your home, eliminating the cause of pests by minimizing access to food, water, and hiding places while inflicting the least harm to people and the environment. For information on IPM: http://www.spcpweb.org/index.php.
To minimize your exposure to pesticide residues on food, use the Environmental Working Group’s Shopping Guide to Pesticides in pdf form or iphone app at http://www.foodnews.org/?mobile_disable=1.
US Environmental Protection Agency
Blog post: Senior Scientist at the Natural Resource Defense Council, Dr. Gina Solomon on pesticides in foods at http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/gsolomon/new_studies_show_long-term_har.html