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Pediatrics group cautions against pesticide use in homes and gardens

By Katy Muldoon
The Oregonian

Last November, as gardeners tucked bulbs in the ground and perused seed catalogs, anticipating this spring's growing season, the nation's leading pediatricians considered it, too.

Last November, as gardeners tucked bulbs in the ground and perused seed catalogs, anticipating this spring's growing season, the nation's leading pediatricians considered it, too.

The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a sweepingpolicy statement warning of the dangers of acute and chronic exposure to pesticides for children.

It outlined powerful evidence linking childhood pesticide exposure to pediatric cancers, decreased cognitive function, asthma and such behavioral problems as autism. It suggested revamping medical training and called for public-health tracking, regulatory action and continuing research on the long-term effects associated with pesticide exposure.

Yet, chances are many parents haven't heard much about it from their children's' health-care providers.

Surveys have found that while doctors agree that pesticide exposure is an important issue, the majority feel poorly prepared to ask or answer questions about it.


A spokeswoman for the Oregon Pediatric Society said that organization couldn't provide a physician to speak on the topic.

Yet, some doctors do ask parents about chemicals used around the home and garden, encouraging them to aim for the least toxic pest-control methods.

Dr. Daniel Rappaport, a Kaiser Permanente pediatrician, says he makes a point to do so, especially as gardening season arrives. "This time of year," he says, "I try to bring it up -- often in the same sentence as, 'Don't leave any upstairs windows with just screens,'" and no child-safety guards.

Rappaport, who has four children and lives in Southwest Portland, says he doesn't use chemicals on his lawn or in his vegetable plot, choosing integrated pest management practices instead. He tells patients' parents: "If you have a choice between putting up with dandelions and weed-and-feed, I'd go with the dandelions."

Parents don't always embrace the message. "They'd rather have a green lawn without much effort," he says.  

"At heart, people know this stuff is basically toxic. They just trust: '... If it's allowed to be out there, it can't be that bad.' That's unfortunately a misplaced trust."

Governments, including Metromaster gardeners affiliated with the Oregon State University Extension Service and others are nudging Northwesterners toward Rappaport's gardening style, encouraging healthier, less chemical-dependent practices.

bill being considered this session by the Oregon Legislature would require using integrated pest management and minimizing pesticide use on state-owned property. It follows a 2009 law that limits pesticide use in Oregon schools.

The pediatrics academy's policy statement amplifies the message.

"It give it validity and puts it in the mainstream thinking," says Aimee Code, environmental health associate for the Eugene-based Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides.

Kids are especially vulnerable to pesticides' toxic effects for lots of reasons. According to the National Pesticide Information Center:

** When exposed, a baby's immature liver and kidneys can't remove pesticides as well as an adult's organs can.

** Infants may be exposed to more pesticides than adults because they take more breaths per minute and have more skin surface, relative to body weight.

** Children spend time close to the ground, touching lawns or flower beds where pesticides have been applied, or crawling on carpet that may have been treated with pesticides.

** They're more likely than adults to put fingers, toys and other objects into their mouths.

** They eat and drink more relative to their body weight than adults, which leads to a higher dose of pesticide residue per pound of body weight.

The Oregon Poison Center at Oregon Health & Science University answered 1,281 calls about pesticide exposure cases last year and 1,578 such calls the year before. Callers asked about the toxicity of and potential treatment required for exposure to everything from boric acid and organophosphates used in insecticides to chlorophenoxy and glyphosphate used in herbicides.

Such calls to poison centers nationwide typically follow acute exposures -- accidentally inhaling or ingesting pesticides or spilling the chemicals on the skin. Sometimes, such exposures lead to hospitalizations or even death.

What's tougher to pin down is whether an individual child's brain cancer, leukemia or low IQ might be the result of exposure to pesticides, even tiny amounts over many years, beginning when they're in the womb.

Many chemicals used in pesticides, however, are classified as carcinogens.

According to the pediatrics academy, evidence has mounted in the past decade that some of those chemicals are linked to everything from low birth weight to abnormal behaviors associated with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. It's policy statement says, "the influences of low-level exposures on child health are of increasing concern."

"It's so easy to go into the store and pick up a spray bottle that says 'kills bugs dead,' and people want the easy solution," says Jen Coleman, outreach director for theOregon Environmental Council.

"Convincing folks that, even if you kid doesn't appear sick you may still be doing them harm," she says, "that's a tough message to get across."

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