Childhood Cancer & Neurological Harm
Pesticide Action Network North America(PANNA) recently released a new report spotlighting pesticides used in the food system and the harmful effects they are having on the nation’s children. In particular, the report finds that children living or attending school near agricultural fields face some of the greatest risk of exposure from pesticides linked to cancers and the developing brain.
Kids on the Front line: How pesticides are undermining the health of rural children provides a rigorous assessment of dozens of independent studies reviewed by leading academic experts in the field. The report finds that the research has grown increasingly strong surrounding the links between pesticides used in food production and health harms, like cancers—particularly leukemia and brain tumors—and developmental disorders or delays, including autism spectrum disorders.
“Children in agricultural communities are on the front-line of exposure to pesticides that don’t stay where they’re put,” says Emily Marquez, PhD, an endocrinologist and staff scientist at PAN, as well as one of the authors of the report. “Pesticides linked to cancer and neurological harm travel through air, water and dust, ending up in homes and schools—and eventually in children’s bodies.”
Children are facing what leading researchers have termed a “silent pandemic” of diseases driven by environmental factors, including pesticides. Rates of childhood leukemia and brain tumors have risen more than 40 percent in the last fifty years, and one in every six U.S. children are now diagnosed with one or more developmental disabilities.
“The scientific evidence linking early life and childhood exposures to pesticides and long-term impacts on health and development is strong and warrants action,” said Irva Hertz-Picciotto, PhD, MPH, Director of the MIND Institute Program in Environmental Epidemiology of Autism and Neurodevelopment at UC Davis—and one of the report reviewers. “Studies have shown that pesticides drift from agricultural applications into residential communities even at some distance away.”
Prenatal and early life exposures to pesticides have been linked to increased risk of cancer. One 2015 study from the University of Chicago and the National Cancer Institute found that children living near production of dry beans, sugar beets and oats were more likely to have leukemia. And the Agricultural Health Study found an increased risk of childhood cancer among 17,000 children of Iowa pesticide applicators.
Similarly, research linking pesticide exposure to developmental disorders and delays has grown increasingly strong. For example, UC Berkeley researchers found that when a mother is exposed to increasing amounts of certain agricultural pesticides during pregnancy, the risk of her child being diagnosed with ADHD or autism increases as well.
Children’s developing bodies take in more of everything, and pesticides can have a more profound impact during critical windows of development. Relative to their size, kids eat, breathe, and drink much more than adults. An infant takes in about 15 times more water than an adult per pound of body weight. In addition, up to age 12, a child inhales roughly twice as much air.
In some parts of the country, pesticide exposure is more likely to occur in low income communities and communities of color. Many of the poorest zip codes and counties in California, by median income, are agricultural and majority Latino. According to a 2014 report by the California Department of Public Health, Latino children in rural, agricultural counties are nearly twice as likely as their white counterparts to attend school in close proximity to hazardous pesticide use.
An estimated 684 million pounds of pesticides were applied in the United States in the last year on record (2007). California is the only state to provide regular pesticide use reporting and notes 189 million pounds of pesticides applied in the last year (2014). The top California crops, in terms of overall volume of pesticides applied, are grapes (both wine and table), almonds, and strawberries. By contrast, the top crops with the most intense pesticide applications (pounds/acre) were raspberries, sweet potatoes, and lemons. The greatest use of pesticides was recorded in California’s Central Valley.
Many pesticides applied in fields are difficult-to-control, including highly volatile gasses called fumigants that are injected into the soil. Others are still sprayed by planes and helicopters, or applied by air blasters pulled by tractors. And many of them are applied in close proximity to children at homes, schools, and sometimes tracked in homes on shoes or clothes. Children’s health advocates are calling on policymakers to respond to the increased information about the harms of pesticides by adopting greater protections and identifying solutions to ensure farmers are supported in transitioning to more kid and environmentally-friendly farming practices.
“A prosperous food and farming system has to account for the well being of our children, while also supporting thriving rural economies and a safe food supply,” said Kristin Schafer, policy director at PAN and a co-author of the report. “These changes in our food system are necessary and long overdue.”
PAN and other children’s health advocates are pressing for commonsense national goals around pesticide reduction, a publicly accessible pesticide use reporting tracking system, and no-spray buffer zones around areas where children live, learn and play.
Kids on the Frontline is a follow-up to the 2012 PAN report A Generation in Jeopardy. The new report is available here.