Children who live on or near farms face high exposure to dangerous pesticides and should be treated as a group needing special protection, according to a report released Thursday by the Natural Resources Defense Council.
"With the pervasive use of highly toxic agricultural pesticides, growing up on, or even near, agricultural land means potentially being surrounded by a swirl of poisons--in the air, in water, on food and on nearly everything a child touches, from a teddy bear to a parent's embrace," the prominent environmental group's report said.
Still, issuance of the report, which drew on 170 studies from scientific journals and conferences, will do little to dispel the debate over the dangers of farm and residential pesticides.
California growers and pesticide regulators maintain that the state, the nation's top agricultural producer, leads in efforts to protect farm workers and to reduce the use of pesticides by finding alternative ways to kill pests.
Decrying what he called the report's "scare tactics," the president of a leading trade group for the fresh produce industry said it was "designed to alarm parents and consumers without identifying a problem."
"Scientists are careful to point out that just because a pesticide is a hazard does not mean it is a risk," David Moore, who heads the Western Growers Assn. in Irvine, said in a statement. "Pesticides can be used safely when applied according to label directions."
Nonetheless, farm workers and farmers for years have voiced concern that their children are among the most exposed individuals in the country and therefore could be at greatest risk of suffering health consequences, especially given the greater susceptibility of children to toxic substances.
This report, issued at news conferences in Los Angeles, San Francisco and a number of California farm communities, would indicate that parents in rural enclaves have reason to be wary.
Toxic materials have been detected inside farm children's homes, on their hands and in their urine, according to research cited in the report. Concentrations of pesticides in air, water, food and house dust are often higher in rural than in urban homes, where children can be exposed to lawn and garden pesticides and chemicals used to kill insect pests indoors.
Jim Wells, director of the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, defended the state's efforts to make pesticide use safe. California, he said, has recognized since the late 1960s that farm workers are most at risk of exposure and for years has required that workers be trained in the safe use of chemicals. Workers are urged, among other steps, to bathe before playing with their children after coming in from the fields.
However, Golden State growers are heavy users of organophosphates, nerve toxins that the report concludes pose a particular threat to farm children.
Before World War II, the report noted, growing up on a farm implied a healthy lifestyle--with lots of clean air, fresh food and physical activity.
With the postwar boom in chemical use, however, farm workers' children have been made ill by pesticide residues on their parents' shoes and clothes and face danger in house dust and carpet fibers where pesticide residue can float or settle, the report indicated.
Farm worker children also run a greater risk if they work with their parents in the fields or accompany them because of lack of child care when chemicals are applied or treated crops are harvested, the report said.
Gina Solomon, a San Francisco-based scientist who was the report's principal author, recommended that federal officials designate farm children as a group needing special protection.
To protect farm workers' children, the Natural Resources Defense Council urged that families be given access to affordable, accessible day care and to laundry services so workers do not have to cart home contaminated clothing. Also, it advised that farm worker housing be built within rural communities rather than as labor camps surrounded by fields, where spray "drift" is common and children play on or near contaminated fields.
Little or no information exists about long-term health effects in children, let alone specifically farm children.
As a result, Solomon said, "it's very difficult to quantify how serious the risk is." However, she added, it stands to reason that farm children's greater exposure would put them at greater risk of health problems.
Bob Krieger, an entomologist based at UC Riverside, agreed that current knowledge is "very primitive" but said he does not think there is a big problem with children. "The available data," he said, "suggest that children may be more exposed than parents, but the levels for both are below levels of concern."