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Avoidable Exposures: Consumers

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Home and Garden Pesticides: Q&A

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There are 94 million households in the U.S. and 60 million of them use pesticides every year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In 1993, consumers spent $1.2 billion dollars to purchase 71 million pounds of home pesticides. With all of this pesticide use, it is not surprising that there have been numerous poisoning incidents.

Many people assume that if a federal agency like the EPA, has approved a pesticide for use, the pesticide must be safe. Pesticide labels are often difficult to read because the print is small and the language may be unclear or complicated. But many pesticides licensed for home use result in chronic exposure. Residues continue to be inhaled and absorbed long after the pesticide application. The very young and the elderly or ill are affected most profoundly by these residues.

Q. Why are children more vulnerable to pesticides?

A. Children have much more skin surface for their size than adults, making them more susceptible to residues. Children have a higher respiratory rate, taking more breaths per unit of time, so they are subject to more severe inhalation exposures. Other routes of pesticides exposure such as swallowing and through the eyes, are more likely to affect children because they are more likely to rub their eyes or put fingers and other objects in their mouths.

Q. What kind of problems are associated with pesticide exposure?

A. There are both short-term, immediate (acute) and long-term (chronic) effects that have been linked with pesticide exposure.

Acute Effects: The acute effects include irritation, contact dermatitis, rashes, blisters, skin bums, corrosive damage to the eyes causing scarring or blindness, mild, moderate and severe systemic poisoning. If you experience acute effects from exposure to pesticides, call a doctor immediately or contact a poison control center.

Chronic Effects: Because you use a pesticide according to the directions and do not notice any acute effects does not mean long-term effects are not occurring. A false sense of security about toxic exposures can result because most home pesticides do not cause immediately observable symptoms. Unfortunately we also know much less about chronic effects of pesticides.

Nervous System Damage
We do know that pesticides can have an impact on the brain and central nervous system. These effects are particularly dangerous for children who have not completed their development. The percentage of people who will develop long-term nervous system problems due to pesticide exposure is not known. Some nervous-system exposure to pesticides include anxiety, difficulty in concentrating, memory deficits, personality changes and more subtle effects.

Reproductive Problems
Reproductive problems linked with pesticide exposure include birth defects, stillbirth, miscarriage, and infertility. The problems for a developing fetus are particularly pronounced during the first trimester of pregnancy. At any point during pregnancy it is best to avoid pesticide exposure. If you suspect that a pesticide exposure may be affected your pregnancy it is best to report this to your doctor.

Pesticides have often been studied for their links to cancer. Populations that are most at risk for pesticide-related cancers include workers with occupational exposure to pesticides, children whose parents have occupational exposure to pesticides, populations living in agricultural areas of heavy pesticide use and children whose parents use pesticides inside and outside of the home. Brain cancer, bone cancer, leukemia, soft-tissue cancers, ovarian cancer and breast cancer have all been linked with various pesticides.

Q. Why do pesticides cause cancer?

A. Many pesticides are xenoestrogens -- compounds that resemble the natural female sex hormone, estrogen. Xenoestrogens are a risk factor for cancer. Pesticides may also be damaging to genetic material, which may result in minor initiation. Pesticides can also promote tumor growth if cancer has already developed or is in early stages of development. Sometimes, tumor promoters like pesticides override the body’s natural means of eliminating sick cells and promote a tumor that would not have grown otherwise.

Q. What are some non-toxic alternatives to pesticides?

A. You do not have to make your home toxic to control household pests. But controlling pests without toxics will require some behavior changes. With pests, like with cancer, you must think in terms of prevention. The following simple strategies can help keep pests from taking up residency with you.

1. Prevent entry by sealing cracks, crevices and holes. Screen vents and windows and use caulking material to seal points of entry.

2. Remove sources of food and water. Don't leave pet food bowls out and take the garbage out daily.

3. A fifty-fifty mix of vinegar and water can be used at entry points to eradicate the scent trail that ants and other pests use to signal their mates. Clean regularly to cut off contact between leader ants and follower ants.

4. Boric acid powder, bait, gel, and paste are good least toxic solutions for use with a comprehensive prevention plan.


Study Feeds Pesticide Debate

Pesticides Pose a Lifelong Threat, New York Times

Samuel S. Epstein, M.D.
Chairman, Cancer Prevention Coalition
c/o University of Illinois at Chicago
School of Public Health, M/C 922
2121 W. Taylor Street
Chicago, IL 60612


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