Kids at Risk From Pesticides

by Curt Anderson
Copyright 1998 The Associated Press
January 29, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) - More than 1 million children age 5 and under face possible health risks from eating fruit, vegetables and even baby food containing unacceptable levels of pesticide residue, an environmental group said today. Although food and chemical makers insist the food is safe, a leading pediatrician says there is cause for concern.

"These chemicals do affect the nervous system, and developing nervous systems are more vulnerable," said Dr. Herbert L. Needleman, a professor of pediatrics and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh who did groundbreaking research on the insidious ways lead poisoning affects learning and brain development.

"Certain pesticides that are highly concentrated should be banned," Needleman added. "If we wait, a lot of kids will pay an unnecessary price."

The Environmental Working Group, a research organization that advocates lower exposure to pesticides, examined federal data on children's eating patterns and compared them to government testing results for residue of a popular class of pesticides on 80,000 samples of food from 1992 to 1995.

The group estimated that 1.1 million children every day eat food that- even after it is washed - contains an unsafe dose of these 13 pesticides, known collectively as organophosphates. Of those, 106,600 children exceed the Environmental Protection Agency's safe daily dosage level for adults by 10 times or more.

The foods most likely to contain unsafe levels are peaches, apples, nectarines, popcorn and pears, the study found. Among baby foods, pears, peaches and apple juice most frequently had elevated levels.

The chemical and food industries called the report alarmist and said it serves only to frighten parents away from wholesome food.

"The food is safe and so are their children," said Jay Vroom, president of the American Crop Protection Association.

"Thousands and thousands of tests have been conducted for pesticide residues on finished products," said Claire Regan, a dietitian and director of science and regulatory affairs for the Grocery Manufacturers of America. "The few residues that are found are well within safe limits for consumers young or old."

If the pesticides were banned or restricted, there would be a major impact on agriculture and ultimately on consumers, said Leonard Gianessi, senior research associate at the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy. Alternatives might not kill all the pest insects, or they might kill some beneficial species, or insects might develop greater resistance.

Organophosphates have been in frequent use for 40 years in every state on dozens of crops to control insects. Two-thirds of the insecticide treatments on U.S. cropland involve organophosphates, which include malathion, methyl parathion and diazinon.

Although research has not conclusively demonstrated a link between chronic low-level exposure to organophosphate residue and health problems in children, the Environmental Working Group found ample evidence in animal studies showing loss of brain function with few outward signs.

"It's not plausible that kids are not feeling effects," said Richard Wiles, vice president for research at Environmental Working Group. "The symptoms are mild. A kid's not going to go to the hospital."

EPA, which is conducting its own review of the chemicals under a 1996 law, has already identified organophosphates as the top priority in determining whether to change the acceptable residue levels in food.

One top EPA official familiar with the Environmental Working Group report said its findings were not out of line with the agency's analysis of the threat to children.

EPA by August 1999 will decide whether to set new standards for the organophosphates in the food supply. EPA could ban them outright or change the acceptable levels in foods, particularly those like fruit and vegetables that medical experts say children should eat frequently for good nutrition.

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