Children around the globe are routinely exposed to pesticides — and sometimes the outcomes are drastic. It’s been over two years since school children in a village in Bihar, India fell severely ill from eating a pesticide-laden lunch, leading to the death of 22.
I’m writing to remember that tragic and avoidable incident, and to remind myself that children remain at risk — here in the U.S. and around the world — when our industrial agricultural system continues to depend on the use of highly hazardous pesticides.
Whether through food laden with pesticide residues, drifting chemicals from agricultural fields or contaminated water and soil, kids' growing bodies are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of pesticide exposure.
Contrary to what pesticide companies would have us believe, many pesticides are neither essential to farming nor safe for communities and ecosystems. And people in countries across the globe are challenging the use of these chemicals — with PAN by their side.
In harm's way
When I think about the incident in Bihar, I am deeply saddened. I am also angry. How is it possible that our agricultural system allows the continued use of highly hazardous pesticides? An extensive body of science makes their potential harm clear, and viable alternative farming methods exist.
While the Indian incident was extreme, children’s are pretty regularly exposed to health-harming pesticides — especially in agricultural areas. For example, in 2014 the California Department of Public Health found that over half a million children in the Central Valley — the agricultural heartland of the state — go to school where hazardous pesticides are applied within a quarter of mile of campus. Of these children, more than 100,000 (mostly Latino) in 226 schools attend classrooms near fields with the heaviest use of dangerous chemicals.
And of the top 10 pesticides most commonly used near schools in California, all have been linked to one or more harmful impacts on children's health or development — from cancer to reproductive system harms, from IQ loss to neurodevelopmental delays.
Chronic exposure is certainly a concern, and so is high dose or acute exposure. In 2012, a school bus in Kern County, California was accidentally enveloped in pesticides that drifted from a nearby aerial application of the insecticide chlorpyrifos. Of the 30 kids on board, about 20 experienced itching skin, upset stomach and generally felt unwell.
This kind of drift incident, from fields where either soil fumigation or crop dusting has occurred, is particularly dangerous and can lead to high exposure for children and local communities. A study published in 2011 found that residents in five agriculture-intensive counties in California had the highest recorded number of illness from pesticide drift — often the result of weather conditions, improper seal of the fumigation site, or the applicator’s carelessness near non-target areas. But fumigants are prone to drift off target even when used according to instructions and in prime conditions.
Drift incidents in Florida and Minnesota also serve to underline one reality: communities in many parts of the world are routinely exposed to agricultural pesticides. And whether through tainted food, drift, or contaminated water and soil, children are particularly vulnerable.
Change on the way
The heartening news is that people around the world are fighting back against pesticide exposure — and winning! In Kerala, India, for instance, a hard fought and hard won ban was achieved against the highly hazardous pesticide endosulfan.
To support the global work to protect children from agricultural pesticides, PAN International launched a campaign last year targeting highly hazardous pesticides. This campaign is focused on the "Terrible Twenty," pesticides found to be particularly hazardous for children. In this campaign in several countries around the world, PAN and allies are demanding that governments take meaningful action to protect kids. And quickly.
We have stories of hope and resistance right here in the U.S. In Minnesota, where communities face hazards from potato production pesticides, the Toxic Taters Coalition is fighting to protect their families. People in Tulare County, California fought for — and won — pesticide application buffer zones around schools. And bowing to pressure from parents, teachers and concerned community members across the state, the California Department of Pesticide Regulation has renewed focus on regulations to protect school kids from drift.
Just after the second anniversary of the Bihar incident, the children who fell ill and died in India are on my mind — as are the countless children around the globe who have been harmed from pesticides. I am in this fight with many others, as is the rest of PAN, to keep pushing back against pesticide corporations and protecting our children where they live, learn and play. Kids deserve no less.