(Beyond Pesticides, August 16, 2016) Young children are disproportionately poisoned by toxic pesticides used indoors, according to a study published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health. Data analyzed from the Queensland, Australia Poisons Information Centre (QPIC) finds that 49% of 743 insecticide-related calls in 2014 concerned young children. Given that children are more sensitive to pesticide exposure than adults because they take in more of a chemical relative to their body size and have developing organ systems, this data underscores the importance of educating the general public about alternatives to the use of toxic pesticides in and around the home.
A significant share of childhood pesticide poisonings occurred in very young children. “Children in the one-year age group were at greatest risk — as they’re at that stage where they spend a lot of the time on the floor and put things in their mouth,” said Karin English, PhD candidate at the University of Queensland. As a result of children’s propensity for hand to mouth motion, cockroach baits and ant liquid were found to be the most common source of insecticide exposure for kids under five, covering 39% of calls. However, Ms. English notes that enclosing cockroach baits in casings reduced poison exposure, and most liquid ant baits were placed in open containers on the floor, where children could access them. “While these products carry a relatively low risk of poisoning, parents need to ensure that all insecticides are out of reach and stored safely.” Bug sprays, including those containing synthetic pyrethoids and the toxic synergist piperonyl butoxide, accounted for another significant route of exposure in the home, comprising 26% of calls.
The lopsided impact of acute pesticide exposure and poisoning on toddlers and infants is underscored by the danger pesticides pose to developing bodies. A robust set of scientific studies has shown that children and pesticides don’t mix. In 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a landmark policy statement affirming that, “Children encounter pesticides daily and have unique susceptibilities to their potential toxicity.” Childhood pesticide exposure has been linked to a range of adverse health endpoints, including cancer, asthma, impaired sexual development, ADHD and other learning disabilities.
Despite this constant threat, while certain U.S. states like California, Oregon, and Maryland have pesticide illness reporting systems, there has been no change at the federal level since Director of the Government Accountability Office highlighted the absence of a comprehensive national database on pesticide incidents and poisonings in 2001. Available data does indicate that pesticide poisonings continues to impact human health and the U.S. economy. A 2012 study published in the Journal of Agromedicine determined through reports from the American Association of Poison Control Centers that an average of 130,136 calls to poison control centers occurred between 2006 and 2010. Scientists estimated the annual national cost associated with pesticide exposures at roughly $200 million.
The vast majority of pesticide poisoning incidents can be prevented by eliminating the need to use a pesticide in the first place. Adhering to organic and integrated pest management techniques in and around the home can work to address pest problems before they become an infestation and health problem themselves. For household pests, place a focus on sealing pests out and denying them access to food and water. This can be done through structural and cultural practices. Seal pests out by calking and sealing cracks and crevices, and installing simple door sweeps. Deny pests access to food and water by making sure pipes and faucets are not leaking, storing food in tightly sealed containers, and purchasing a trash can with a tight fitting lid. Additional cultural controls such as attentive vacuuming, not leaving food or crumbs out at night, immediately cleaning up messes, and refraining from allowing dishes to soak overnight are certain to limit pest access to food and water. In the unlikely event pests do become a problem, least toxic pesticides like baits or gels can be employed but should never be stored or placed in areas where children or pets can access them.
In the event that you or a child are poisoned by a pesticide, it is important to seek help immediately by calling 911 and the poison control hotline at 1 (800) 222-1222. Pesticide poisonings incidents should also be reported to your state pesticide regulatory agency, which you can find through this link. You can also send a pesticide incident report to Beyond Pesticides, which allows us to keep track of poisoning events and watchdog state and federal agencies. Though the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does not have a comprehensive pesticide incident reporting database, it does keep track of poisonings based on individual chemicals, and use that information when evaluating a pesticide for re-registration.
For more information on what to do in a pesticide emergency, see Beyond Pesticides’ webpage. And for important information to on protecting newborns, infants, and toddlers from toxic chemical exposure, see the Healthy Health Care webpage. Lastly, for management of household pests without hazardous pesticides, see Beyond Pesticides’ ManageSafe database.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.