Developing and vulnerable
Children most susceptible agricultural pesticides, residue on produce
For most of her life, Kristin Schafer has seen the connection between agricultural practices and human health. She grew up on a ranch before moving to Butte Creek Canyon when she was in middle school. She served in the Peace Corps in Kenya, working on agroforestry, and in the World Resource Institute’s Sustainable Agriculture program before joining the Pesticide Action Network (PAN) 20 years ago.
PAN is an international coalition of NGOs and citizen groups dedicated to challenging “the global proliferation of pesticides, defend[ing] basic rights to health and environmental quality, and work[ing] to ensure the transition to a just and viable food system,” according to its website. As program and policy director, Schafer encountered an increasing number of scientific studies about adverse effects weed- and insect-killing chemicals have on people. Some research would draw headlines; much would get no publicity, so the impact would be limited—mostly in households like hers.
“My daughter was like the strawberry police in her preschool; she was like, ‘You can’t eat those, those aren’t organic!’” Schafer said in a phone interview from Atlanta, where she traveled last week to watch her daughter, Linnea Mack, swim for UCLA at the NCAA Championships.
“There are a lot of chemicals used on strawberries, which has tremendous impact on Watsonville and the whole Central Coast region. But it was funny, [young Linnea wouldn’t] let you eat those strawberries….
“We don’t tend to be rigid about only eating organic, but when we can it’s something we try to do because not only does it support our family’s growth, but it also helps support that sector of the agricultural industry…. Moving in the direction of reducing the use of the chemicals that we know to be most harmful just makes sense. It’s common sense.”
Which chemicals are the most harmful? How do we really know?
Schafer sought to consolidate and propagate the science in collaboration with experts through PAN. She has been the lead author on multiple reports for the organization and co-authored a report on children’s health.
The latter report—A Generation in Jeopardy: How Pesticides Are Undermining Our Children’s Health and Intelligence—came out in 2012 and will get republished this spring with added information. Not only will the 2016 version have updated data, incorporating newer scientific studies, it will also examine environmental effects from agricultural chemicals in rural areas.
Children in all communities ingest pesticides as residue on food they eat, Schafer said; children in farming communities “get this kind of double dose of exposure.”
It’s a widespread issue: The California Department of Public Health determined that more than a half-million children statewide attend school within a quarter-mile of pesticide use. (That figure comes from a 2014 study of 15 rural counties, not including Butte.)
Schafer and her colleagues are finalizing their report, which she anticipates will be released in June, so she couldn’t share all the conclusions. She did say the latest data—“new evidence, new types of studies”—have been “overall reinforcing the findings we saw in 2012.”
The crux of the findings: Exposure to certain herbicides and pesticides at specific periods of development, even in very low doses, contributes to a child’s increased risk of cognitive and physical problems.
Conditions to which studies link agricultural chemicals include birth defects, autism, ADHD, childhood cancers, asthma, obesity, diabetes and early onset of puberty.
“Why we focused in on children is because they’re particularly vulnerable,” Schafer said. “They take more in pound-for-pound than adults do—more air, more water, more food—as they’re growing, and at the same time they don’t have all the biological, physiological defenses developed that adults do.”
Dr. Mark Lundberg, Butte County’s public health officer, shares Schafer and PAN’s concern about ensuring the healthy development of children. He stresses, however, that an all-or-nothing view of pesticides also poses risks.
Take mosquito-borne illnesses, such as the West Nile and Zika viruses. Zika, so far, has not posed a major risk in Butte County. West Nile has. In fact, 2015 was “our most significant year for WNV” with 32 milder (i.e., fever) cases, 24 serious (neuroinvasive) cases and one death.
“When you are talking about these communicable diseases, these are complicated analyses you have to look at: the health benefit versus the health risk,” Lundberg said by phone. “In some places of the country and in some places of the world, they’re using pesticides to try to address a public threat, a public health epidemic.”
Lundberg appreciates efforts to reduce the use of farm chemicals, such as a bill moving forward in the California Legislature (Senate Bill 1247) that would create “agricultural innovation zones” to incentivize change.
“When alternatives can be found, why not encourage that?” he said. “We don’t have a shortage of pesticides in our bodies, do we?”
His overriding perspective is that “the public’s health needs to be the utmost, top priority on policies of pesticide regulation, and if impacts to human health are not offset by the benefit to human health, then those policies need to be looked at to regulate that product.”
Schafer, for her part, hopes to spark informed discussion, akin to those that her children have had. Her reports and the PAN-affiliated website WhatsOnMyFood.org get information to the public.
“It’s trying to make those links between what’s on our plate and what’s happening in the field,” she said. “Pesticides are in the name of the organization, [but] pesticides are sort of a way into a whole bundle of issues around food and farming, and our goal is really to promote and support a thriving, resilient food and farming system that doesn’t put children at risk, rural communities at risk, farm families or farm workers at risk.”