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There are 94 million households in the U.S. and 60 million of
them use pesticides every year, according to the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA). In 1993, consumers spent $1.2 billion
dollars to purchase 71 million pounds of home pesticides. With
all of this pesticide use, it is not surprising that there have
been numerous poisoning incidents.
Many people assume that if a federal agency like the EPA, has
approved a pesticide for use, the pesticide must be safe. Pesticide
labels are often difficult to read because the print is small and
the language may be unclear or complicated. But many pesticides
licensed for home use result in chronic exposure. Residues continue
to be inhaled and absorbed long after the pesticide application.
The very young and the elderly or ill are affected most profoundly
by these residues.
Q. Why are children more vulnerable to pesticides?
A. Children have much more skin surface for their size than adults,
making them more susceptible to residues. Children have a higher
respiratory rate, taking more breaths per unit of time, so they
are subject to more severe inhalation exposures. Other routes of
pesticides exposure such as swallowing and through the eyes, are
more likely to affect children because they are more likely to
rub their eyes or put fingers and other objects in their mouths.
Q. What kind of problems are associated with pesticide exposure?
A. There are both short-term, immediate (acute) and long-term
(chronic) effects that have been linked with pesticide exposure.
Acute Effects: The acute effects include irritation, contact dermatitis,
rashes, blisters, skin bums, corrosive damage to the eyes causing
scarring or blindness, mild, moderate and severe systemic poisoning.
If you experience acute effects from exposure to pesticides, call
a doctor immediately or contact a poison control center.
Chronic Effects: Because you use a pesticide according to the
directions and do not notice any acute effects does not mean long-term
effects are not occurring. A false sense of security about toxic
exposures can result because most home pesticides do not cause
immediately observable symptoms. Unfortunately we also know much
less about chronic effects of pesticides.
Nervous System Damage
We do know that pesticides can have an impact on the brain and
central nervous system. These effects are particularly dangerous
for children who have not completed their development. The percentage
of people who will develop long-term nervous system problems
due to pesticide exposure is not known. Some nervous-system exposure
to pesticides include anxiety, difficulty in concentrating, memory
deficits, personality changes and more subtle effects.
Reproductive problems linked with pesticide exposure include birth
defects, stillbirth, miscarriage, and infertility. The problems
for a developing fetus are particularly pronounced during the
first trimester of pregnancy. At any point during pregnancy it
is best to avoid pesticide exposure. If you suspect that a pesticide
exposure may be affected your pregnancy it is best to report
this to your doctor.
Pesticides have often been studied for their links to cancer. Populations
that are most at risk for pesticide-related cancers include workers
with occupational exposure to pesticides, children whose parents
have occupational exposure to pesticides, populations living
in agricultural areas of heavy pesticide use and children whose
parents use pesticides inside and outside of the home. Brain
cancer, bone cancer, leukemia, soft-tissue cancers, ovarian cancer
and breast cancer have all been linked with various pesticides.
Q. Why do pesticides cause cancer?
A. Many pesticides are xenoestrogens -- compounds that resemble
the natural female sex hormone, estrogen. Xenoestrogens are a risk
factor for cancer. Pesticides may also be damaging to genetic material,
which may result in minor initiation. Pesticides can also promote
tumor growth if cancer has already developed or is in early stages
of development. Sometimes, tumor promoters like pesticides override
the body’s natural means of eliminating sick cells and promote
a tumor that would not have grown otherwise.
Q. What are some non-toxic alternatives to pesticides?
A. You do not have to make your home toxic to control household
pests. But controlling pests without toxics will require some behavior
changes. With pests, like with cancer, you must think in terms
of prevention. The following simple strategies can help keep pests
from taking up residency with you.
1. Prevent entry by sealing cracks, crevices and holes. Screen
vents and windows and use caulking material to seal points of entry.
2. Remove sources of food and water. Don't leave pet food bowls
out and take the garbage out daily.
3. A fifty-fifty mix of vinegar and water can be used at entry
points to eradicate the scent trail that ants and other pests use
to signal their mates. Clean regularly to cut off contact between
leader ants and follower ants.
4. Boric acid powder, bait, gel, and paste are good least toxic
solutions for use with a comprehensive prevention plan.
Study Feeds Pesticide Debate
Pesticides Pose a Lifelong Threat, New York Times
Samuel S. Epstein, M.D.
Chairman, Cancer Prevention Coalition
c/o University of Illinois at Chicago
School of Public Health, M/C 922
2121 W. Taylor Street
Chicago, IL 60612