Extension Specialist, Family Life Education
Cape Cod Extension
University of Massachusetts
The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) recently released a report on Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children. Members of the committee which researched and wrote the report were trained in such wide ranging areas a toxicology, biochemistry, statistics, nutrition, and pesticide
The report URGES PARENTS TO CONTINUE TO EMPHASIZE FRUITS AND VEGETABLES IN THEIR CHILDREN'S DIETS. The long term health benefits (reduced risk of colon cancer, for example) of a diet which emphasizes fruits and vegetables appear to outweigh the risks of pesticide residues in the current food supply in the United States. However, the report made several significant recommendations regarding the regulation of pesticides and pesticide
residues on food.
The NAS report suggest that LABORATORY TOXICOLOGY STUDIES SHOULD TAKE INTO ACCOUNT A RANGE OF AGES OR DEVELOPMENTAL STAGES of the test animal. Most studies have been conducted on mature animals (usually mice or rats) and do not take into account the possible differences between young and mature animals or between children and adults. The report points out that children are not "small adults" but that they often differ from adults in many ways, including the development of their nervous and immune systems. As a result they may break down (metabolize) or eliminate pesticides at different rates than do adults. Children or infants may be more sensitive than adults to some pesticides, while they may be less sensitive to others.
The NAS committee also expresses CONCERN ABOUT THE CURRENT DESIGN OF FOOD CONSUMPTION STUDIES. While food consumption surveys now take into account
regional variation, they do not look at the difference in what people eat at different ages. Infants and young children tend to eat fewer kinds of foods than adults but consume more food relative to their body weights than do adults. The report recommends the future food consumption surveys
consider seven subgroups of "young people" - 0 to 12 months, 13-24 months, 25-36 months, 37-48 months, 49-60 months, 5 to 10 years, and 10 to 18 years. Such a survey would enable researchers to determine diet patterns and perhaps to identify particular food to track more carefully.
The report also notes that MORE INFORMATION IS NEEDED REGARDING PESTICIDE
RESIDUES. For example, many studies have not included or concentrated on children or infants. In addition, very little has been reported regarding the effects of food processing on pesticide residues. The report also points out that pesticides can show up in drinking water, and this must be
taken into account. In addition, people may be exposed to pesticides or other chemicals in the air, in soil, on pets, or in indoor settings. Finally, the report notes that a process should be developed to assess the risks from exposures to more than one pesticide residue. Several of the insecticides which are used in food production are related to each other chemically and cause similar effects on animals or humans. Residues of more than one of these materials might be present at the same time.
The NAS study indicates many scientists believe that pesticides in the diet do not represent a major food safety concern. However, the assumptions which were made regarding "theoretical risks" are subject to debate, especially for infants and children. The authors of the report have said
that they hope that their recommendations, if adopted by the various federal agencies, will lead to the DEVELOPMENT OF MORE ACCURATE RISK ESTIMATES.
So the bottom line is that while some reports may stress the "pesticide residues" side of the story, and some consumers may react to those reports by changing their food purchasing habits, parents would be wise to maintain or increase the amounts of fruits and vegetables they feed their children.
According the members of the National Academy of Sciences committee who authored the report, as well as the vast majority of health professionals, most agricultural researchers, and several environmental organizations which are working toward significant reductions in the use of agricultural pesticides, THE BENEFITS OF EATING FRUITS AND VEGETABLES WILL BE MUCH GREATER THAN ANY POTENTIAL SMALL RISKS FROM PESTICIDE RESIDUES IN THE FOODS.