By Roberta Attanasio
In 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a policy statement to outline the harmful effects of pesticides in children, and to make recommendations on how to reduce exposure. According to the statement, prenatal and early childhood exposure to pesticides is associated with pediatric cancers, decreased cognitive function, and behavioral problems. In addition, the statement pointed out that recognizing and reducing children’s exposure to pesticides requires improved medical training, public health tracking, and regulatory approaches, and made recommendations on specific actions that should be taken to decrease such exposure.
Despite the recognition of the dangers associated with pesticide use, and the AAP recommendations on limiting children’s exposure, not much has been done since 2012 — indeed, it’s likely going to get worse before it gets better.
The AAP recommended that pediatricians should ask parents about pesticide use around the home and yard, offer guidance about safe storage, and recommend parents choose lowest-harm approaches when considering pest control. Are pediatricians following these recommendations? At this time, let’s say this is an open-ended question — although we may guess what the correct answer is.
Let’s now move from the local (the American Academy of Pediatrics – AAP) to the global (the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations – FAO).
According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), nearly 100 million boys and girls between 5 and 17 years old are engaged in child labor in agriculture. Many are directly exposed to toxic chemicals while working on the farm — however, children are also exposed when they help with family chores or play, and through the food they eat and the water they drink.
Exposure can result in acute poisoning and sickness immediately after contact. But often, it also has longer-term, chronic impacts on their health and development.
Children are particularly vulnerable to pesticide exposure for various biological and behavioral reasons. They breathe in more air than adults and so take in more dust, toxic vapors, and droplets of spray. Relative to their body weight, children need to eat and drink more than adults, and if food is contaminated, they absorb more toxins. The surface area of a child’s skin per unit of body mass is greater than that of an adult, and their skin is more delicate. All these factors can lead to greater absorption of chemicals, and children’s organs are less able to detoxify pesticides because they are not yet fully developed.
Now, recognizing that education is crucial to limit exposure to pesticides (as stated by the AAP in 2012), FAO and ILO extension workers in Africa and elsewhere are engaging with rural communities to reduce exposure to pesticides used in farming. The program mostly targets Africa, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Asia Pacific — regions in which children are more likely to be exposed to pesticides used in farming. But, are these the only regions that should be targeted?
You can easily answer this question after watching (see below) how children are exposed to toxic pesticides — daily — while working on U.S. tobacco farms.