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Pediatricians, pesticide researchers: Pregnant women, children need better protection

This was a big week for news linking exposure to pesticides—and to thousands of untested industrial chemicals—to harmful effects on fetuses and children. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) called on lawmakers to completely rewrite the “ineffective” Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA) of 1976 “to protect children and pregnant women and to better protect other populations."

This was a big week for news linking exposure to pesticides—and to thousands of untested industrial chemicals—to harmful effects on fetuses and children.

In a strong policy statement issued Monday, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) called on lawmakers to completely rewrite the "ineffective" Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA) of 1976 "to protect children and pregnant women and to better protect other populations."

Under the TSCA's lax stewardship over the past 30 years, several chemicals which should have been regulated—including bisphenol A, phthalates, and flame retardants—have been linked to harmful effects in children, including endocrine disruption, lower IQ, and attention and behavior disorders.

Reasonably enough, the mainstream medical group urged lawmakers to require that:

  • Chemical manufacturers must prove safety of products before going to market.
  • Chemical testing should include data on reproductive and developmental toxicity, including endocrine disruption, as it relates to reproduction, neurotoxicity, and puberty.
  • The EPA must have authority to demand additional safety data or limit or stop sales of a chemical when there is a high degree of suspicion that the chemical might be harmful to children, pregnant women, or other populations. (Not just for demonstrated harm.)

The other batch of news came in the form of three studies published in Environmental Health Perspectives, all of which found a correlation between diminished IQ and blood levels of organophosphate pesticides (OP) in children ages 1 to 9.

Agricultural chemical trade groups, such as the Watsonville, Calif.-based Alliance for Food and Farming, were quick to note that OPs are no longer allowed for household use, and that overall use has dropped significantly since the studies began a decade ago. And in an effort to ease consumer fears about pesticide residues with "credible, science-based information," it has graciously launched SafeFruitsandVeggies.com.

Although we do have much more toxicity data on agricultural pesticides than on other chemicals, "protection is still falling short," says Sonya Lunder, senior policy analyst for the Environmental Working Group (EWG). "These three studies are strong evidence that organophosphate exposures during pregnancy CAN have lasting effects on children's intelligence. We don't know if the use restrictions that have taken place since then are sufficient."

Certainly, there are a number of ways consumers can reduce personal exposure to toxins—buying domestically grown produce in season, buying organic when it comes to EWG's Dirty Dozen, always washing produce before eating, using nontoxic cleaners, and avoiding pesticide/insecticide use in your house and yard.

But this situation is upside-down—and it needs to change. Why is the burden on families and communities to try to protect children once these toxins are widely sold and used? Kudos to the AAP—and to the Presidents Cancer Panel, who last year said U.S. babies are being born "prepolluted." As Lunder says, "We don't want to learn seven years from now that today's pesticide exposures are unsafe."

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