A new report from Pesticide Action Network highlights the risks to the health of children in rural communities from exposure to pesticides. Kids on the Frontline focuses on the latest research showing the unintended consequences of chronic pesticide exposure for children who live in agricultural communities.
Kids in both rural and urban areas are exposed to pesticides in homes, schools and communities. Many homeowners use pesticides to control weeds and indoor pests like ants, rodents and cockroaches. They are also applied in schools, day care centers, parks and public buildings. Pesticide residues are routinely detected on many foods, including fruits and vegetables. In addition to these types of exposures, children in agricultural communities have additional exposures to pesticides that contaminate the water supply and drift near their homes and schools.
The report notes that pesticide drift from fields contaminates dust, resulting in higher levels of pesticides in farm homes. Pesticides also make their way into drinking water supplies in rural communities. Rural kids have “take home” exposures, when parents carry pesticide residues on their clothes, skin and shoes into homes and vehicles. Farmworker children also swim in irrigation ditches and play near agricultural fields where pesticides have been applied. Finally, an estimated 300,000 to 800,000 children work in agricultural fields and are therefore exposed to pesticides on the job.
Health Impacts of Pesticides
It’s important to note that pesticides are poisons, specifically designed to kill pests – including weeds, insects and rodents. Because pesticides target the same cellular signaling mechanisms found in humans, their toxicity translates from one organism to another. Science strongly implicates exposure to persistent low levels of some pesticides in daily life to a myriad of chronic diseases, including cancer, Parkinson’s disease, reproductive problems and learning disabilities. American adults on average carry residues of 31 different pesticides or their break down products in the body, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
Exposure to pesticides begins before birth, as pesticides in the mother’s body pass through the placenta to her growing fetus. One study examining exposures of urban women to pesticides during pregnancy measured eight pesticides in personal air samples and seven in blood samples. Pesticides detected in the mothers’ blood correlated with those found in cord blood, illustrating a routine fetal exposure to chlorpyrifos, diazinon, bendicarb, and other pesticides.  Increased risk of acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) is associated with prenatal pesticide exposure.  
Childhood cancer is associated with parental home or occupational use of use of pesticides, including during pregnancy.    Exposure to pesticides in the womb or infancy are also linked with developmental disorders and delays, including ADHD and autism spectrum disorder.
Rural Kids at Greater Risk
The report points to several studies showing that kids in agricultural areas are at even greater risk than children in urban or suburban areas.
- The risk of two types of leukemia was higher for children living near sugar beet and dry bean production.
- High cropland density was correlated with significantly increased risk for certain types of cancer.
- The Agricultural Health Study found that the children of pesticide applicators in Iowa were at increased risk for childhood cancers.
- Increased risk of autism spectrum disorder was significantly higher for children of women who lived within a mile of agricultural fields where organophosphate pesticides had been applied during their pregnancy.
It will take more than individual action to better protect the health of children in agricultural communities. Kids on the Frontline recommends several policies and collective actions needed to solve this problem, including setting goals for overall reductions in pesticide use, creating buffer zones around schools and homes and investing in organic and sustainable farming. Check out PAN’s action page here.
Avoiding Pesticides Around Your Home and Community
While exposure to agricultural pesticides is largely involuntary for rural kids, all children are potentially exposed to pesticides. The good news is – parents can take steps to reduce their children’s exposure. Studies show that pesticides can remain in your home long after use – so try to control pests without pesticides.
- Inside: Clean up food and beverage spills immediately. Keep food and garbage in closed containers. Use mechanical traps and low toxicity products as a last resort and keep pregnant women and children away from areas where pesticides have been applied.
- Outside: Repair torn screens and seal cracks and crevices to prevent pests from coming in.
- Outside: Don’t pay attention to the scores of insecticides and herbicides lining the store aisles. You don’t need them to have a nice lawn and garden. See Natural Lawn and Garden Care Basics for non-toxic lawn care solutions.
- Food: Buy organic food whenever possible or choose fruits and veggies that have lower pesticide residues.
- Community: Find out if pesticides are used in your child’s day care center, school or the local park. If so, get involved in encouraging managers and officials to phase out their use.
- The Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Third National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals. Atlanta, Georgia, 2005. NCEH publication#: 05-0725.
- Whyatt RM, Barr DB, Camann DE, Kinney PL et al. Contemporary-use pesticides in personal air samples during pregnancy and blood samples at delivery among urban minority mothers and newborns. Envir Health Perspect. 2003;111(5): 749-756.
- Lafiura KM, Bielawski DM, Posecion NC Jr, Ostrea EM Jr, et al. Association between prenatal pesticide exposures and the generation of leukemia-associated T(8;21). Pediatr Blood Cancer. 2007;49(5):624-8.
- Emerenciano M, Koifman S, Pombo-de-Oliveira MS. Acute leukemia in early childhood. Braz J Med Biol Res. 2007;40(6):749-60.
- Infante-Rivard C, Weichenthal SJ. Pesticides and childhood cancer: an update of Zahm and Ward’s 1998 review. J Toxicol Environ Health B Crit Rev. 2007;10(1-2):81-99.
- Wigle, DT, MC Turner, D Krewski. A systematic review and meta-analysis of childhood leukemia and parental occupational pesticide exposure. Environmental Health Perspectives. 2009;117(10):1505-13.