The hidden ingredient in children's diets
My three-year-old ate 13 different pesticides today. No, she was not rushed to the emergency room. She merely picked her way through a normal day of typical preschool fare: apple juice, cereal, peanut butter, pizza, and lots of fruit.
The sobering news came from www.foodnews.org, an interactive website of the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a Washington-based nonprofit environmental research organization. Parents can check off what a child eats during the day, and the website analyzes the pesticide content of the food.
A kind of culinary roulette
Compiled from more than 90,000 government lab tests conducted over seven years, the EWG database replicates a kind of culinary roulette consumers play every day. You walk into a grocery store and pick up some fruit. Along with your apple, you might get 10 pesticides or you may get none.
But eater beware: the odds are against you. The U.S. Department of Agriculture found pesticides in more than 70 percent of the samples it analyzed in 1996, including 98 percent of the apples and 96 percent of the peaches. (Samples are analyzed after washing.)
How much is too much?
Okay, so pesticides do leech into foods. But what are the health risks? Most parents would agree that any amount of toxaphene in peanut butter is too much. What does the EPA say? Apparently, the government is still trying to figure that out.
In 1993, the National Academy of Sciences reported that federal pesticide regulations provide too little health protection for children and infants. Three years later, Congress passed the Food Quality Protection Act, which, for the first time, required specific protections for fetuses, infants, and young children.
As a result, the development of new child-specific standards has been on the EPA's agenda since 1997. To date, however, no new standards have emerged.
Why kids are vulnerable
Current government standards are based on the typical adult body and diet. Children's smaller bodies are still developing and are less capable of handling toxins. Children also tend to eat greater quantities (relative to their size) of fewer kinds of foods.
Consider the grape, for instance. Kids love grapes, and they also consume large quantities of raisins and grape juice. Apples, apple sauce, and apple juice are perennial favorites with toddlers and preschoolers. So children would naturally be at greater risk if grapes and apples contain anything harmful.
And they do. Ten years after Alar, the well-known apple crisis of 1989, pesticide use on fruits and vegetables has only increased. Today, according to the EWG, 20 million American children age five and under eat an average of 8 pesticides a day, every day-a total of more than 2,900 pesticide exposures per child per year.
The stuff of nightmares
The health risks associated with pesticides are a parent's nightmare. Foods commonly eaten by children contain multiple pesticides known or suspected of causing brain and nervous system damage, cancer, disruption of the endocrine and immune systems, and a host of other toxic effects. And the levels, say groups like the EWG, are significant.
Organophosphate insecticides (OPs) are now coming under increased scrutiny. Like lead and PCBs, OPs are neurotoxic; they cause long-term damage to the brain and nervous system when exposure occurs during critical periods of development. Every day, 610,000 children under six eat a dose of OPs that the government deems unsafe. More than half do so by eating an apple, apple sauce, or apple juice.
What can you do?
With such serious risks and no clear guidelines, what's a parent to do? Kids can still enjoy the health benefits of fresh fruits and veggies. To be on the safe side, take some simple precautions.
First of all, buy organic. Health-food stores, cooperatives, even some large grocery chains sell organic produce. When you cannot find organic, or if the price difference is prohibitive, decrease or even eliminate the worst food offenders-like apples, peaches, strawberries, and red raspberries.
Instead, substitute less contaminated, equally nutritious foods. For example, serve blueberries instead of strawberries, or domestic grapes rather than imported, to reduce pesticide exposure. Offer your little ones watermelon, pineapple, peas, broccoli, and domestically grown cantaloupe, all of which show consistently low pesticide residues. Finally, use your voice as a consumer. Gerber, the nation's leading baby food company, has eliminated most OP insecticides, as well as other pesticides, from nearly all its products. With the right kind of persuasion, other food companies may follow.