You make a conscious effort to keep your child away from harmful substances -- medications have a childproof top, the laundry detergent and drain cleaner are kept well out of reach. But if a mouse scurries across your kitchen floor, you might not think twice about turning to chemicals for help.
And yet pesticides, insecticides, rodenticides, and other products contain a wide range of chemicals that may pose serious health risks to you and your family. "Most people think that pesticides sprayed under their counters or in one spot in the backyard stay where you put them," explains David O. Carpenter, M.D., director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany in Rensselaer, New York. Instead, these chemicals become airborne and cling to dust particles, where we can easily inhale them. And if you're regularly relying on such products to keep your home and garden pest-free, your family may be absorbing these chemicals far too often. "Even at low levels, chronic exposure can add up to adverse health effects in the long term," says Dr. Carpenter. "And the stakes are especially high for little kids." In fact, last November, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued a policy statement calling for the government to improve warning labels on pesticides and set goals to reduce our children's overall exposure to them.
This makes sense. "These chemicals are designed to kill by interfering with an insect's nervous system," explains Phillip Landrigan, M.D., a Parents advisor and director of the Children's Environmental Health Center at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. "But insects and people aren't as different as you'd think. Our brain and theirs have similar enzymes, so we're also vulnerable." And since pound for pound, children breathe more air than adults do (infants twice as much) and encounter more dust as they crawl around on the floor, they are especially vulnerable to the health hazards of these chemicals. "We now suspect that certain pesticides can kill cells in the brain of very young children in doses that would be more or less harmless for an adult," says Dr. Landrigan.
Environmental-health experts worry that pesticide exposure may increase kids' risk for a wide range of health problems, from allergies to childhood cancer, while also impacting healthy cognitive development. Studies of more than 800 children in New York and California published in Environmental Health Perspectives revealed that babies who had been exposed while in utero to a class of pesticides called organophosphates had lower IQ scores, a shortened attention span, and difficulties with short-term memory by the age of 4. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) started banning organophosphates in most household products in 2001, but they're still used by exterminators and allowed in farming, which means they can wind up in our food.
The jury is still out on whether the chemicals that have replaced organophosphates in the majority of household products are necessarily safer. The new chemicals fall into two groups known as pyrethrins and pyrethroids. "Inhaling or ingesting these can be toxic and result in symptoms like asthmatic breathing, headaches, nausea, tremors, convulsions, swelling, and itching," explains Jennifer Sass, Ph.D., a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit environmental-action group. Pyrethroids, in particular, are designed to persist in the environment rather than break down, which raises questions about what happens when we're exposed to them long-term.
Of course, even with these potential health risks, breaking up with pesticides is hard to do. But a series of commonsense practices known as Integrated Pest Management (IPM) can be effectively applied to just about any pest problem -- and leaves the toxic stuff as a last resort.