The science is in. Our food system's continued reliance on pesticides is putting children's health at risk. Kids across the country are exposed in various ways, but those who grow up in agricultural areas often face a "double dose" of pesticides from nearby fields. Rural children are — quite literally — on the frontlines of pesticide exposure.
These are the key findings of our Kids on the Frontline report, released today in communities across the country. Our roundup of recent science powerfully underscores both the scope of the problem we collectively face, and the urgent need for change.
Ever stronger science
Back in 2012, I worked with our scientists here at PAN to produce A Generation in Jeopardy. We reviewed more than 200 studies examining the links between pesticide exposures and childhood health harms. We found that, yes, science indicates that pesticides are undermining children's health.
That report caught the attention of both state and federal policymakers, and was reinforced by a statement on the dangers of pesticides to children from the American Academy of Pediatrics later that year. But the pace of policy change is painstakingly slow. And those who benefit most from continued use of pesticides go to bat — with deep pockets — to keep things as they are.
Meanwhile, the case for real food system change just keeps getting stronger. For this new report, we looked at the most recent studies, focusing in on how children in rural, agricultural communities are exposed and affected. Once again, the science clearly indicates increased risk — with strong connections to childhood cancers and neurodevelopmental harms.
Childhood cancer risk is up
Scientists have long understood that kids are more vulnerable than adults to the harms of pesticide exposure. From the brain to the immune system to reproductive organs, the body’s systems are developing quickly throughout childhood. Interference from pesticides at critical moments — even at very low levels — can derail the process in damaging ways.
This includes increasing the risk of cancer. Studies indicate that pesticide exposure in the womb or exposure of either the mother or the father before conception can increase childhood cancer risk. Living in rural agricultural areas can up the risk of childhood leukemia.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, leukemia and brain tumors are the most common — and fastest rising — types of cancer among children, up between 40 and 50 percent since 1975. The science connecting pesticide exposure to higher risk of these two cancers is particularly strong.
Altered brain development
Then there's the science linking pesticides to neurodevelopmental harms. Research shows that even extremely low levels of exposure to a range of common pesticides — especially in the womb and early childhood years — can increase the risk of developmental disorders and delays.
Some 15 percent of all U.S. children — one of every six — now have one or more developmental disabilities.
In one study highlighted in Kids on the Frontline, scientists reviewed more than two dozen studies published between 2002 and 2012 exploring the impact of pesticide exposure on children’s developing nervous system. They found that “all but one of the 27 studies evaluated showed some negative effect of pesticides on neurobehavioral development.” Impacts ranged from reduced IQ levels and motor skills, to developmental disorders like ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
We can do better
The science linking pesticides with children's health harms was already strong back in 2012, and it just keeps getting stronger. How much more evidence do we need? Here at PAN we believe it's time to build a system of food and farming that supports children's health, rather than putting them at risk.
Here are some of the concrete steps we recommend in Kids on the Frontline:
Reduce overall pesticide use: Policymakers need to set an ambitious national use reduction goal for agricultural pesticides. Once this goal is in place, officials at all levels should implement strong policies and programs to reach the goal — including accessible use reporting systems to track progress.
Protect children first: Our national use reduction goals should prioritize action on those pesticides most harmful to children. In addition, protective pesticide-free buffer zones should be established around schools and daycare centers in rural communities across the country.
Invest in healthy, innovative farming: It's time to provide significant and meaningful incentives and recognition for farmers stepping off the pesticide treadmill, and prioritize investment in healthy, sustainable and resilient farming practices.