WASHINGTON-An environmental-research group shocked the nation's food industry and pesticide makers by reporting that more than one million infants and young children are exposed each day to potentially unsafe doses of pesticides in their food. The Environmental Working Group's findings provoked a round of protests from industry trade groups, all denouncing the report as alarmist and unscientific. But a senior U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official called the group's risk assessment "useful." She said the EPA will use a very similar method to assess children's combined dietary exposure to a class of insecticides known as organophosphates.
The Environmental Working Group's study focuses on 13 organophosphates, which are derivatives of nerve gases developed by Nazi Germany. They have been used widely for 40 years against scores of agricultural pests, as well as roaches and termites. What worries many health officials is the potential health effects of long-term, low-level exposure to these neurotoxic chemicals, particularly on the intellectual development of infants and small children.
"These chemicals do affect the brain and the nervous system, and developing nervous systems are more vulnerable," said Dr. Herbert L. Needleman, a University of Pittsburgh professor of pediatrics and psychology. "Certain pesticides that are highly concentrated should be banned." The Environmental Working Group used government data on children's eating patterns as well as pesticide test results from 1991 to 1996 on nearly 82,000 samples of fruit and vegetables. It estimated that 1.1 million children under age five each day eat food that contains an unsafe dose of one or more organophosphates. Of them, 106,600 children exceed the FDA's safe daily dosage level by 10 times or more. The food items likeliest to contain unsafe levels are peaches, apples, nectarines, popcorn and pears, the group reported. As for baby foods, pears, peaches and apple juice were found to have the most frequently elevated levels.
Lynn Goldman, assistant EPA administrator for pesticides and toxic substances, said the group's study is instructive as "a snapshot at one point in time." In keeping with a 1996 law, the EPA no longer regulates pesticides chemical-by-chemical. It plans a more sophisticated version of the group's study to assess the relative risks of combined exposure to pesticides. Organophosphates are used on 64 million acres, or one-fifth of the nation's farmland, with corn and cotton accounting for half of the estimated $700 million in annual agricultural sales of the pesticide. An additional $300 million a year in organophosphate insectides are sold for household and garden use and mosquito control, according to the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy.
The Wall Street Journal January 30, 1998
COMMENT: Another reason to use organic foods whenever possible.