Which group would you believe?
The Environmental Working Group and the National Campaign for Pesticide Policy Reform reported this summer on a survey showing that more than half of the name-brand baby foods in the country contained small amounts of pesticide residue that posed health risks to infants. Although the residue met government standards, the groups maintained that the standards need to be tightened.
Right on their heels, the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition issued a rebuttal, insisting that the pesticide traces were negligible and accusing the environmental groups of scare tactics, timed to influence debate over regulatory reform.
Since both sides offered representatives with seemingly sound scientific credentials, many parents were left to wonder what a "trace" of pesticides in the strained spinach really meant.
It's the sort of informational conundrum that happens too often, especially in the arena of children's issues, says Rae Tyson, an environmental reporter for USA Today. Over nearly two decades, Tyson has watched a parade of public health debates--over asbestos, radon, lead, electromagnetic fields.
And every time he reports on such a story, he knows he'll be swamped with calls from anxious parents. "If you are trying to make a decision about a personal health issue, the conflicts can drive you crazy," he says.
So he has written a new book titled "Kidsafe" (Times Books) to provide a guide through the uncertainty, separating hype from documented fact. The 190-page paperback is meant for parents who turn on the evening news and see someone, often a respected scientist, suggesting that air or water or food might be poisoning their children.
"Parents really do get pulled and pushed by all sorts of conflicting information that seems to change week by week, and I don't think we in the press help," he says. He cites the classic case of the pesticide Alar, used on apples, which, within a two-year span, was identified as a carcinogen by the EPA, which then reversed its finding but was then contradicted by a CBS "60 Minutes" broadcast, which caused a national stir by calling Alar, once again, a potent cancer-causing element.
Often just a little information can be a big help, Tyson says. "In the case of baby food and pesticide residues, parents should be made aware that organic baby food is easy to obtain and many of the major manufacturers are now producing it. Just read the labels." Of course, you'll have to pay up to 20 more per four-ounce jar.
At the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Dr. Ruth Etzel says she welcomes Tyson's book. "These are complicated issues and sometimes it takes years of study before the scientific community reaches a consensus," the pediatrician says. Currently, a pressing issue is the new technology of home carbon monoxide detectors, she says. "They have a lot of potential because we know carbon monoxide causes hundreds of deaths each year, but we don't know yet how good this technology is for us."
Etzel, who chairs the environmental health committee for the American Academy of Pediatrics, says her group is preparing similar guidelines for parents, but they won't be available for at least a year.
Tyson, the founding vice president of the Society of Environmental Journalists, is a former science teacher whose first environmental beat was Love Canal in Niagara Falls, N.Y., where a dormant chemical dump started releasing toxins into the ground. When vegetable gardens started wilting and more infant birth defects were reported, the area's residents, particularly parents, forced the issue into the headlines.
Now, environmental health warnings are part of everyday life. "Hardly a week passes without some news about a new risk: pesticides in our food; chemicals on the neighbor's lawn; asbestos in our community schools; leaded paint in our homes," Tyson writes in the introduction to his book.
It is an irony of contemporary history, he adds, that many products consumers used over the years, confident that "someone" had tested them, have turned out to be hazardous. The No. 1 health risk for children today is lead, which, until it was banned in 1978, was used in our plumbing, pottery, paint and added to the gasoline we bought for our cars. The increased awareness of the danger of lead poisoning caused the federal government to declare it a "societally devastating disease."
"Lead is a situation where we are certainly much better off in 1995 than in 1975, but parents still need to beware," Tyson says. What parents need to know is that they can test for these hazards in their own home and soil, and, more importantly, they can have their children tested. The CDC recommends testing at 12 months and again at 24 months.
Also troublesome, but much less documentable, are electromagnetic fields, which radiate from such disparate sources as electrical power lines and the living room TV set. Studies linking EMFs and childhood cancer are inconclusive, Tyson says, but there are a number of ways to minimize exposure in the meantime. If you're concerned, rent or borrow a gaussmeter that will allow you to test your whole house and all the appliances thoroughly, Tyson says, and teach your children to keep an appropriate distance (the "arm's-length" rule) from EMF sources such as computer and television screens. Other chapters include:
* Pesticides: which are toxic and how to find alternatives.
* Asbestos: How to tell whether it would be smarter to remove this onetime "miracle insulator" in your home or leave it alone.
* Water pollution: How to test for it, and what the alternatives are to drinking tap water.
* Radon: the colorless, odorless gas that can enter your home through cracks or in the water supply. An inexpensive radon test kit provides the easiest check and, if you find a problem, there are procedures for overcoming it.
* A final chapter on dozens of other ways to "childproof" a house.
Tyson understands the parental predicament. He and his wife, Joan, have a daughter, 12, and son, 9. "I have some worries about them," he says. "'I've done fairly extensive lead testing in my home, but we are a lot less concerned about outdoor air quality, since we live in a little town 30 miles outside of Washington."
But he is convinced that having some knowledge of the issues makes it easier to move your family through each potential problem. His overall advice: "Don't work yourself into a high state of anxiety. In almost every case, where there is a problem, the solutions are not that difficult."
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Ways to Reduce Pesticide Exposure
What worries parents the most about their children's health and safety? Although anxiety changes with the headlines, pesticides seem to be an ongoing concern, says Rae Tyson.
"Standards are set for adults, but children have a higher rate of metabolism and tend to assimilate contaminants more quickly than adults," he said. "And they may have a higher percentage of fruits and vegetables in their diets, which increases their exposure to pesticides."
But keeping in mind that our food supply is reasonably safe, he says, parents should know there are lots of alternatives. His advice:
* Buy or purchase certified organic product whenever possible, or purchase produce from supermarkets that conduct their own pesticide testing.
* Buy produce in season when possible.
* Peel produce, or scrub it with a vegetable brush and warm, soapy water before eating.
* Buy certified organic baby food.
* Use only organic fertilizer for your lawn; opt for natural alternatives rather than chemical sprays.
* Call your local health department to find out if your area is being sprayed with pesticides such as rodenticides to control rats and mice in public parks or aerosols to control specific insect infestations. Keep your children away from those areas.
* Keep all pesticides out of children's reach; use them only in well-ventilated areas away from children.
* Use natural insect and rodent remedies inside your home.