Pesticides in food: are our children safe?
Since Rachel Carson’s book, “Silent Spring” warned us in 1962 about the environmental dangers of modern chemicals, pesticicle use has escalated. Pesticides are chemicals that kill certain insects and microorganisms which attack plants. They benefit humankind by combating pests and helping farmers save crops from damage. But some can also damage the environment and human health.
Regulations try to limit pestlcide hazards
Pesticides may pose an environmental risk by seeping into water (and soil), may become an occupational threat to agricultural workers using them or harm humans who ingest them. Although stringent regulations limit or ban any that could be injurious, concern about chemical pesticides has made many turn to organically grown foods in an effort to escape their possibly harmful effects.
Current regulations for pesticide use test their safety, evaluate and monitor their correct use. Studies determine not only the efficacy of a pesticide in decreasing crop damage, but examine whether it can harm the environment or human health. The regulations are re-evaluated and changed as new knowledge and experience come in. With this in mind, in 1988 the U.S. congress asked the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and National Research Council (NRC) to jointly review current methods for regulating pesticide residues in foods, specifically examining their adequacy in determining the impact of pesticide residues on infants and children. (“Pesticide residues” are the remains of a pesticide or its breakdown products left in or on food after it is washed, processed and cooked – ready for eating.)
Report stresses need to protect children from pesticides
The recently released NAS report gives an in-depth review of current pesticide regulations – their strengths and weaknesses – strongly recommending changes to safeguard the health of infants and children. Examining’data on the safety of pesticide residues in the diets of infants and children, the NAS report emphasized the fact that “because infants and children are not just little adults” current scientific and regulatory procedures must be improved to ensure that youngsters are protected from unsafe exposure to the residues.
The NAS report made the following recommendations:
* Collect more complete dietary data on the foods eaten by infants and how much they eat. Because infants and children eat a less varied diet than adults, their exposure to pesticide residues will differ, depending on their food choices. To complicate matters, a child’s diet changes through childhood what a one-year-old eats is quite different from that of a threesix, eight- or 10-year-old. Current surveys report dietary data on children only in broad age categories such as from “one to six years of age.” This division is inadequate- data must be collected and grouped into smaller age categories such as oneyear-olds, two-year-olds and so on. Surveys should also record how much water is consumed as young children drink large amounts of water which also contains pesticide residues.
* Include data on non-dietary sources of pesticide exposure such as air, soil, lawns, pets and indoor surfaces.
* Research ways in which adults differ from infants and children in processing pesticide residues.
* Implement new methods for determining and ensuring food safety and find out who is at most risk from “above average” exposure to pesticides in the diet (and other sources).
These recommendations provide the basis for changes to the pesticide regulatory system which would make sure that the food supply remains plentiful yet safe for infants and children. In summary, as pointed out by a pediatrician and professor at New York’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine, “the report reveals some serious deficiencies in the current regulatory system that need to be corrected,” adding that “these should not be cause for alarm.”
The report also stresses that parents should continue to feed youngsters a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and juices as they are “good sources of essential vitamins and minerals.” The dangers of not eating enough of these foods outweighs any possible harm from pesticide residues in food. Studies so far find pesticide residues in infant and childhood diets “well below tolerance levels set by the EPA” (Environmental Protection Agency). The American Academy of Pediatrics affirms that “there is no evidence that pesticides contribute significantly to human cancer risks,” adding that “a diet rich in fruits and vegetables is the most healthful that children can Consume.”
Pesticide regulation in Canada
There are approximately 300 pesticide chemicals registered in Canada for use in foods. The Pest Control Products (PCP) Act and Regulations governs their sale and use in Canada. Although Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada are responsible for administering this act, three different federal departments share in the regulatory process.
Any company wishing to import, sell or use a new pesticide in Canada must apply to the federal government for permission and undergo an assessment by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Environment Canada and Health Canada. The company must provide scientific data about the pesticide’s usefulness and safety, including information about the amounts left in food. Government experts review the information, examine the pesticide’s efficacy and effects on plants and animals, to confirm that the product will do the job it promises, without harming humans or the environment. Environment Canada evaluates the impact of the pesticide on the environment, and the Environmental Health Directorate of Health Canada reviews the data to ensure the safety of workers exposed to it. They also decide what labels the pesticide must bear, stating who can use the product (household or industrial use) and in what amounts.
The story doesn’t end here. The regulatory process also demands follow-up on a pesticide once it’s approved checking that it’s properly applied and evaluating the amount left in foods when it gets to the table. Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs) – the amount of pesticide residues allowed in food – are set according to the Food and Drugs Act of Canada. The amount of residue consumed from all foods must not exceed the Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI). (The ADI for a pesticide is the amount considered safe for a human to consume each day for an entire lifetime.) Canada’s ADIs approximate those set by the Worm Health Organization. Imported foods are also analyzed to make sure that none entering Canada contains residues of a pesticide not approved for use in this country and that the residue levels of those considered appropriate comply with Canadian regulations.
In February 1992, the Canadian government agreed to implement recommendations developed by a Pesticide Registration Review Team designed to improve the current regulatory system and make sure that human health and the environment continued to be adequately protected. The Review Team’s recommendations were to:
* increase resources for developing safer and more effective pesticides;
* establish a Pest Management Alternatives Office which will look for alternate approaches to pest control;
* improve access to information on pesticides for those working with them.
Want more information on pesticides in food?
Consult the toll free information service established in 1985 by Agriculture Canada and Agri-Food Canada to provide information on the use, safety and regulation of pesticides. (Call 1-800-267-6315). To find out how organic foods are grown, contact the Canadian Organic Growers Association: (613) 256-1750. (See back box for information on ways to produce disease-resistant plants by biotechnology.)
How about organically grown products ?
According to the International Food Information Council, although there are no legal standards for the term “pesticide-free,” labeling foods this way implies that they are free of any pesticide residues. However, there is no concrete evidence that foods labeled “organically grown” are in reality safer or more nutritious than those produced using conventional agricultural practices. Many organic growers in fact use natural pesticides, such as suffur or copper, and there are no studies showing the relative risks venus benefits of
applying naturally occurring rather than man-made pest killers.
COPYRIGHT 1994 Strategic Inc. Communications Ltd.
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group