San Francisco – Exposure to pesticides is one key reason why children today are more likely to have a wide range of such diseases and disorders as cancer, autism, birth defects and asthma than children of a generation ago, according a study released yesterday.
'We have waited much, much too long to make the health of our children our national priority," lamented Kristin Schafer, a mother of two, and lead author of the report, "A Generation in Jeopardy," by the Pesticide Action Network of North America (PANNA).
Schafer, PANNA's senior policy strategist and a veteran policy research analyst, pointed out that a raft of studies has shown that between 400,000 to 600,000 of the 4 million children born each year in the United States, are affected by a developmental disorder. Scientists, she said, are calling it "a silent pandemic."
Schafer and her team of researchers studied the link between pesticide exposure and developmental disorders in children for more than 10 months, reviewing more than 200 scientific studies and government data that tracked them.
What they learned was "quite startling," she said citing figures that show that more than 10,000 kids are diagnosed with cancer each year and more than 7 million kids have asthma. There's been a spike in the incidence of leukemia and brain cancer, she said.
"This generation is less likely to reach its full potential" Schafer said, but quickly pointed out that pesticides are not the only drivers of an increase in developmental disorders, and that genetic and environmental factors can also play a role.
The report highlights the innovative policies communities across the country have adopted to protect children from pesticides where they live, learn and play. In California, for instance, the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) has replaced the use of harmful pesticides in its schools with so-called integrated pest management practices.
Willie Green, SFUSD's director for custodial services, said its schools use the least amount of toxic chemicals or none at all to address their pest problems, thanks to the city's 1996 integrated pest management ordinance.
SFUSD contracts with a pest control agency to make sure that any pest problems its schools face are addressed with the least use of harmful chemicals. For instance, better door sweeps have prevented rodents from entering buildings.
"If a problem can be addressed without using pesticides, that's the way we go," Green asserted.
Schafer pointed out that some schools in the Central Valley, which has a strong agricultural base, have protective buffer zones for schools and neighborhoods to keep children out of harm's way. Pesticide-free schools exists in such states as Connecticut, as well, she said.
Tracey Woodruff, a professor at UCSF's School of Medicine, pointed out why children are especially vulnerable to the harms of pesticide exposure. She said they have "quickly growing" bodies that take in more of everything.
"They eat and drink more, pound for pound, than adults," Woodruff said, noting that children's "physiological systems undergo rapid changes from the womb through adolescence.
"Anything that interrupts the processes, like pesticides and industrial chemicals even at very low levels, can lead to significant health harms," she said.
San Francisco's bold Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program should be emulated by other cities to protect the health of its citizenry, said Chris Geiger, manager of the IPM program at the San Francisco Department of the Environment.
Geiger acknowledged that while the city ordinance was only a small step because it applied only to city property, it was an important step nevertheless. Local communities should not depend on federal regulations because enforcing them fully takes a long time.
The report points to the need for such reforms to reduce pesticide use as:
- Introduction of policies that allow enforcement agencies to act quickly to pull pesticides off the market, when independent studies indicate they are harmful.
- Support innovative farmers as they transition away from pesticide use.
- Track national pesticide use reduction goals, with a focus on those pesticides that studies indicate are harmful to children.
- Withdraw harmful pesticide products from use in homes, daycare centers and schools.
- Establish pesticide-free zones around schools, daycare centers and neighborhoods in agricultural areas to protect children from harmful exposures, especially pesticide drifts.
The report was released in 10 cities nationwide yesterday. Here, in the city, it was released at the Sunset Elementary School where teaching time is set aside to show children how to maintain an organic vegetable garden.