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Children Need More Vigilant Avoidance of Pesticide Exposure, say Pediatricians

children's health and safety, Pediatrics, pesticides, organic food

Unfortunately, children have almost daily exposure to pesticides, say doctors with the American Academy of Pediatrics, and this exposure is more dangerous to them than it is to adults. For most children, diet is the most influential source of these toxic chemicals.

Pesticides are a collective term for chemicals intended to kill unwanted insects, plants, molds, and rodents. Children have unique susceptibilities to their potential toxicity. Chronic exposure – even low-level exposure - can lead to pediatric cancers (ie brain cancer and leukemia), decreased cognitive function, and behavioral problems.

Children encounter pesticides daily in air, dust, and soil and on surfaces through home and public lawn or garden application, household insecticide use, application to pets and agricultural product residues. However, food is probably the most prevalent source of day-to-day exposure. A study that placed children on a diet of completely pesticide-free foods found that there was a drastic and immediate decrease in urinary excretion of pesticide metabolites.

To keep pesticides out of your meals, says pediatrician Dr. Jim Sears on the television show The Doctors, consider buying organic produce. Of course, for many families, this would be a major financial undertaking, so begin by reading the list of “The Dirty Dozen,” the foods with the greatest levels of toxins, and if you include those in your family meal plans – consider purchasing these pesticide-free first.

The Dirty Dozen
These fruits and vegetables listed below usually have a thin skin and are hard to wash, making it more difficult to remove pesticides.
• Celery
• Peaches
• Strawberries
• Apples
• Blueberries
• Nectarines
• Bell Peppers
• Spinach
• Kale
• Cherries
• Potatoes
• Grapes

Fruits and Vegetables that have thicker skins, are more resistant to pesticides and are easier to wash are known as “The Clean Fifteen.” Dr. Sears says that while this will not always equate to lower levels of pesticides, it is probably okay to buy these in their non-organic form.

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The Clean Fifteen
• Onions
• Avocados
• Sweet Corn
• Pineapples
• Mangos
• Sweet Peas
• Asparagus
• Honeydew Melons
• Cabbage
• Eggplants
• Cantaloupes
• Watermelons
• Grapefruits
• Sweet Potatoes
• Kiwis

Pesticides are also encountered elsewhere in and out of the home, such as through the use of insecticides, rodenticides, flea and tick preventive medicines for pets, and lawn fertilizers. Parents can reduce pesticide exposure by aiming to control pests in homes and gardens in the least toxic ways. For example, to control cockroaches, families can keep garbage in containers with lids, eliminate plumbing leaks and use the least toxic insecticides, such as boric acid, in cracks and crevices, the report says. Families should avoid using lawn products that combine pesticides and fertilizers because use of these products tends to result in over-application of pesticides.

Schools can also get on board with using less toxic chemicals. Integrated pest management systems and identifying an appropriate “buffer zone” around the building can minimize pesticide use and schools should post warning signs when there is danger of exposure.

Dr. James Roberts MD MPH says that historically, pediatricians have a “poor track record” in identifying symptoms of toxic exposure and asks doctors to better prepare themselves for diagnosing problems. The local or regional poison control center can be a key resource as can the label on the pesticide, which often provides basic first aid advice.

A table listing common pesticides, signs and symptoms of exposure, and clinical management considerations are included in the Policy Statement from the AAP.

The statement also offers advice to the government on better regulation of labeling, ensuring pesticide marketing doesn’t look attractive to children, and optimizing national surveillance of pesticide-related poisonings.

American Academy of Pediatrics. AAP Makes Recommendations to Reduce Children's Exposure to Pesticides. Release date: November 26, 2012.
Pesticide Exposure in Children (Policy Statement). Council on Environmental Health. Pediatrics. Originally published online November 26, 2012. DOI: 10.1542/peds.2012-2757