You don’t have to be working on or living near a farm in order to be exposed to toxic pesticides. Once in the soil, pesticides can infect the food or be blown anywhere by dust particles, and are also carried away by the rain. Moreover, there’s a lot of pesticide use in urban environments. In fact, researchers were surprised to see that the heaviest pesticide use in New York was not in agricultural communities, but in Brooklyn and Manhattan, where inner-city apartment complexes use them to kill pests such as cockroaches. (Shabecoff & Shabecoff, 2010, p. 112)
How people are exposed to pesticides
Exposure to pesticides can occur in a number of ways:
- From residential use or spraying by landlords and apartment complexes
- From eating tainted produce
- Runoff from rainwater that ends up contaminating the water supply
- Lawn maintenance or weed killers
- Playing on grass fields that have been sprayed with pesticides
- Living or working on or near farm fields
Golf courses are groomed with more pesticides per square foot than any other landscape, including crops. (Wago, 1998, p. 146) Pet flea collars and flea treatments are another often overlooked source of pesticides.
The main ways that kids are exposed to pesticides
A 2002 study by the EPA found that 40% of kids in the U.S. were exposed to organophosphates “at a level of concern,” and this is just one family of pesticides. (Shabecoff & Shabecoff, 2010, p. 57) The primary means of exposure for children are:
- Inhalation: Not only can children breathe them in while they’re being sprayed, but whatever they land on can continue to give off noxious fumes for anywhere from a few days to a few months, depending on the pesticide and the conditions. This is the primary source of exposure.
- Food and water: Since we spray pesticides on our food crops, they can be found in just about everything we eat – not only the obvious culprits like fruit and vegetables but to a lesser extent even the packaged foods we eat. Many people think that washing produce will get rid of the pesticides, but this isn’t the case. Some pesticides can’t be washed away; they are designed to stay on through repeated rains, and can easily withstand your kitchen faucet. Many others are absorbed by the plant directly into the produce. As Dr. Caroline Myss states, “The prolonged use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers has resulted in such serious damage to the earth that the crops are themselves now toxic, having absorbed the poisons from the earth.” (Myss & Shealy, 1993, p. 372) Studies have found that switching children to organic diets for several days reduces pesticide exposure to near or below detectable levels, suggesting that diet was the primary source of exposure in that study population.” (Rauch et al., 2012) Agricultural runoff has also tainted the drinking water, especially in agricultural communities. Evan Eisenberg notes that in Iowa, it’s not uncommon for “hospitable Iowans (to) assure their guests that the coffee is made from ‘reverse-osmosis’ water, since agricultural runoff has made the tap water undrinkable.” (Hawken, Lovins & Hunter-Lovins, 1999, p. 193)
- Absorption through the skin: Residues can contaminate toys, clothes, carpets, or soft furniture, and take up to 2 weeks to dissipate. They can also be absorbed by children rubbing against the plants or grass that has been sprayed.
- Mother to child: Virtually all pesticides cross the placenta during pregnancy, and can also be transferred via breast milk when nursing. This is one of the most concerning means of exposure, since these poisons have the most profound effects on the developing fetus.
Acute pesticide exposure
Most of us are exposed to pesticides in small doses that are capable of doing damage over time. Yet pesticides are one of the few chemicals for which acute exposure is a real possibility and a significant concern. There have been a number of instances in the U.S. where children playing on the playground at their school have suddenly become ill and started vomiting or convulsing when an unfortunate breeze happened to carry the pesticides that were being sprayed on a nearby field right to where they were playing.