With less pesticide use, children would be healthier

By: Susan Berkson, Guest Columnist

Now that winter is finally winding to a close, pesticide season is beginning. It’s not just the pesticides the farmers use. It’s the pesticides we and our neighbors use on our lawns, our lakes, our pets and ourselves – pesticides that find their way into air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink, our homes and us.

They work their way deep into our systems, even into the breast milk of nursing mothers. So along with precious nutrients, a nursing baby is likely to get dieldrin, chlordane and heptachlor.

Pesticides are designed to kill, and the evidence grows daily that they kill far more than their intended targets. They are especially toxic to fetuses and children, whose developing systems cannot handle even the smallest exposures to these poisons.

Pesticide exposure is linked to Parkinson’s disease, endocrine disruption, and cancers including leukemia, brain cancer and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Children exposed to pesticides are at up to six times greater risk of leukemia or brain cancer.

Yet we continue to dose our children with these poisons; at home, at school, ball fields, golf courses, throughout our neighborhoods and at camp. Even if we don’t use them in our own homes or yards, we are exposed when our neighbors do. Pesticides – in the form of lawn chemicals, mosquito treatments or roofing preservatives – drift to our yards as easily as leaves.

Some commonly used lawn pesticides evaporate and become airborne quickly, especially when temperatures are high. The resulting vapors can drift up to five or 10 miles. We breathe them. We track them inside to our carpets where children play. We are exposed yet again when they leach into groundwater, and from there, into the water we drink.

No one knows how many tons of pesticides are used in Minnesota. The Minnesota Agriculture Department is required by law to collect data on pesticide use, and to monitor and reduce contamination when detected. In a November 2001 report, “Inaction Speaks Louder Than Words,” The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA) found that the Agriculture Department is not doing its job; that large portions of the state are unmonitored; and that the agency fails completely to monitor for pesticide breakdown products.

Further, the Agriculture Department bases its decisions on whether contamination requires action on advice from a committee made up largely of industry representatives.

The MCEA report cites numerous studies by state and federal agencies documenting widespread low-level pesticide contamination of our groundwater and surface water. The Agriculture Department’s central Minnesota monitoring network found the herbicide atrazine in 70 percent of its wells. A 1997 U.S. Geological Survey reviewed dozens of studies conducted over 20 years in a 20,000-square-mile area of central Minnesota, concluding that pesticides in rivers and streams in that region are “ubiquitous.” The Minnesota Department of Health found residues of the insecticide chlorpyrifos in the urine of almost all the Minnesota children tested and residues of 2,4-D in more than half.

For a rough idea of your immediate exposure, look around your neighborhood this spring for those little “Warning: Keep Off. Chemically Treated” lawn signs that pop up.

This won’t take into account people who treat their own lawns or lakes; who spray for mosquitoes and bugs and milfoil and bees.

Bugs and weeds, dandelions and crabgrass are part of life. We don’t have to love them, but we do need to deal with them in ways that don’t hurt our children or ourselves. We need to reduce dependency on pesticides and practice Integrated Pest Management. There are many resources, including the Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance, Gardens Alive at and the Health-E-Home at

As this halting winter disappears, we could have real seasons: spring, summer and fall. But if we keep using pesticides, that’s all we’ll get. Pesticide season. And for children, that can be lethal.

Berkson (e-mail: [email protected]) is metro coordinator for the Minnesota Children’s Health Environmental Coalition. The MCEA report “Inaction Speaks Louder Than Words” can be viewed online at