How Are Safety Standards for Pesticides Met?

Toxicology is far from an exact science when it comes to estimating the safety standards of pesticides. Current pesticide standards, called tolerances, are based on the assumption that people are exposed to only one pesticide at a time. Studies to evaluate safety standards are done with animals because it is unethical to test toxic safety standards in humans. An additional “uncertainty factor” is then added as a theoretical safety margin for humans.

Is it reliable to assume a chemical is safe in humans because it is safe in an animal? The drug thalidomide did not produce toxic effects on rats when tested. After years of human use of the drug, it was recognized that the drug caused severe birth defects. A limitation of animal testing is that there is a big difference between an animal living in a controlled laboratory environment and a human living in a world exposed to other factors like air and water pollution, pharmaceutical drugs, malnourishment, and/or disease.

What Is the Government Doing for Our Children?

Safety standards are based on the adult male, and they presently do not consider the vulnerability of children. A landmark report from the National Academy of Sciences in 1993 entitled “Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children” recognized that infants and children are at the highest risk from toxic substances, but often they are the least protected. This report encouraged the federal government to change its scientific and regulatory procedures to protect children. Some points from this report (listed below) indicate factors that need to be recognized in children.

  • Children have fast metabolisms, have less varied diets, and are particularly vulnerable to the effects of pesticides.
    Their ability to activate, detoxify, and excrete toxins is different than that of adults.
  • Because of their smaller size, children are exposed to higher levels of pesticides per unit of body weight.
  • Measurements of pesticide residues tend to focus on foods eaten by the average adult; children’s diets are under represented.
  • Effects of multiple exposures to pesticides may be greater than the sum of effects from separate exposures and must be evaluated.
  • Better tests and more data are needed to evaluate concerns in children.
  • According to this report, safety standards developed should apply to all health effects, not just cancer, including harm to the nervous system, immune system, or reproductive ability.
    The effects of non-dietary sources of pesticide exposure combined with dietary sources of exposure need to be evaluated.

The Food Quality Protection Act, passed unanimously by Congress in 1996, requires that all pesticides be safe for infants and children and promises to reassess the levels of pesticide residues allowed in food. The law also stipulates that combined exposures to pesticides be considered when setting safety standards. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is committed to increasing protection for infants and children, but new standards may take years to develop. The agency has until 2006 to ensure that all old pesticides meet new standards.

When to Go Organic?

The Reality of Pesticides Consumers Union, an advocacy group and publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, has criticized the EPA for not providing basic information about pesticides for consumers. Consumers Reports has published two recent reports on pesticides in foods in January 1998 and again in March 1999. The main concern given in both of these articles has to do with how pesticides affect our children and the vulnerability of children to present standards. Some highlights from these articles follow:

  • The pesticide levels on nearly all produce was within legal limits but may not be at levels safe for children.
  • Domestic produce had more pesticides than imported produce in two-thirds of the cases.
  • Of 27 foods tested between 1994 and 1997, seven – apples, grapes, green beans, peaches, pears, spinach, and winter squash – had the highest toxicity score.
  • A high toxicity score does not necessarily mean a person is at high risk, but it depends on how often and how much of the item a person eats relative to that person’s body weight.
  • A single sample of spinach had up to 14 different pesticides. One in 13 spinach samples had pesticide residues that exceeded the safe daily limit in a single serving for a 44-pound child.
  • Foods with a very low toxicity score included: apple juice, bananas, broccoli, canned peaches, milk, orange juice, and canned or frozen peas and corn.

See Food News to get a handy wallet guide and a full list of 43 fruits and vegetables and how they rate with their pesticides load.  This list was put together by the Environmental Working Group.  If your child eats food off the list that are more highly contaminated with pesticides, you should choose to buy more organic of those fruits and vegetables.