Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that children are sicker today than they were a generation ago and that pesticides have played a major role?
— Maria Jenkins, Clewiston, FL
IT’S IMPOSSIBLE TO SAY with certainty that our modern reliance on pesticides is directly causing more of our children to get sick more often, but lots of new research points in that direction. An October 2012 report by Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA) entitled “A Generation in Jeopardy” examines dozens of recent studies and concludes that the influx of pesticides in our society is taking a heavy toll on our kids’ health and intelligence.
“Children today are sicker than they were a generation ago,” reports the group. “From childhood cancers to autism, birth defects and asthma, a wide range of childhood diseases and disorders are on the rise.” PANNA’s assessment of the latest science “leaves little room for doubt: pesticides are one key driver of this sobering trend.”
Pesticides are all around us today. We are exposed to them via the foods we eat and the air we breathe. As a result, we all carry trace amounts of them in our bloodstreams. Children’s bodies, since they are still developing, are particularly susceptible to health problems from pesticide exposure. Kids routinely come in contact with pesticides inside their homes and schools and out in their backyards, schoolyards and parks. Even family pets, many of which wear pesticide-laden flea collars and powders, can be a source of pesticide exposure for children. According to PANNA, even extremely low levels of pesticide exposure can cause significant health problems, particularly during pregnancy and early childhood. New research links pesticide exposure to harm to the structure and functioning of the brain and nervous system.
“Pesticides may harm a developing child by blocking the absorption of important food nutrients necessary for normal healthy growth,” reports the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “Another way pesticides may cause harm is if a child’s excretory system is not fully developed, the body may not fully remove pesticides.” Exposure to pesticides during certain critical developmental periods can permanently alter a growing child’s biological systems. The result, warns PANNA, is an increase in birth defects and early puberty and noticeable increases in asthma, obesity, diabetes and some cancers.
What’s appalling is that we have known about these dangers for decades yet have done little about it. “Nearly 20 years ago, scientists at the National Research Council called for swift action to protect young and growing bodies from pesticides,” says PANNA. “Yet today, U.S. children continue to be exposed to pesticides that are known to be harmful in places they live, learn and play.” For its part, the EPA does evaluate children’s exposure to pesticide residues in common foods and evaluates new and existing pesticides to assess risks, creating guidelines and regulations accordingly. But many would like to see the EPA take a stronger stand against the widespread use of pesticides across the U.S.
There are several ways individuals can minimize pesticide exposures for themselves and their loved ones. Buy organic food whenever possible. Avoid chemical sprays and bug traps inside and out of the home. And steer clear of farms and other agricultural lands that regularly get sprayed with pesticides.
Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that asthma cases in children often correlate to living close to roads and all the associated pollution-spewing traffic? — Jake Locklear, San Diego, CA
LIVING NEAR A ROADWAY certainly does exacerbate asthma, especially for kids. To wit, a recent study by the University of Southern California (USC) — the most comprehensive by far to date on this topic — found that at least eight percent of the more than 300,000 cases of childhood asthma in Los Angeles County can be attributed to traffic-related pollution at homes within 250 feet of a busy roadway. The findings, released in the September 2012 online edition of the peer-reviewed journal, Environmental Health Perspectives, indicate that previous research underestimated the effects of roadway traffic on asthma.
“Our findings suggest that there are large and previously unappreciated public health consequences of air pollution in Los Angeles County and probably other metropolitan areas with large numbers of children living near major traffic corridors,” says Rob McConnell, one of the lead researchers on the study and a professor of preventive medicine at USC’s Keck School of Medicine.
“These findings confirm our understanding that air pollution not only makes things worse for people with asthma but can actually cause asthma to develop in healthy children,” reports Diane Bailey of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a leading environmental non-profit. “It is even more sobering when you consider that 45 million Americans live within 300 feet of a highway and many of them are children.”
USC researchers note that new laws in California designed to reduce carbon output — improving fuel efficiency and reducing vehicle miles by increasing public transit options — will also help reduce asthma triggers. Some of the policies designed to reduce traffic congestion and car usage include offering housing developers incentives to locate projects closer to transit stops, thus encouraging use of public transit.
“Plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and combat climate change offer an opportunity to develop ‘win-win’ strategies that will maximize the health benefits from reduction both of greenhouse gases and of air pollutants that directly harm children,” McConnell says.
“There is also emerging evidence that other diseases may be caused or exacerbated by urban air pollution, including atherosclerosis, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and neurological disorders,” McConnell adds. “Thus, policies to combat climate change may have near-term health benefits beyond reducing the burden of disease due to asthma.”
According to NRDC’s Bailey, prioritizing the land directly next to freeways and other busy roads for commercial rather than residential use is one way to keep people at a safer distance from asthma-triggering pollution. Those who already live near busy roadways can help mitigate pollution effects by planting trees — foliage of all kinds is good at absorbing pollutants — and by filtering their indoor air to minimize overall exposure. But given that traffic pollution increases asthma by some eight percent, says Bailey, “we better do everything we can do reduce that pollution and minimize exposure to it.”