Intervenor: Vol 24. No 4 October - December 1999

Children at Risk: Exposure to Pesticides

Over a year ago, CELA staff embarked on an exciting study with the Environmental Health Committee of the Ontario College of Family Physicians. We were overly optimistic in thinking we could spend about six months to review environmental standards in Ontario and assess whether they are protective of children's health. The study is only now nearing completion. We knew we wanted to create a foundation for more work, a foundation that did not yet exist, but we greatly underestimated the effort required. The study takes a broad overview of the many aspects of standard setting in diverse media (air, water, etc.) and then focuses in on specific details in two case studies.

In the pesticides case study, the regulatory focus is the federal government's Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA). Coincidentally, during 1999 the House of Commons Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development also conducted its own review of federal pesticide regulation. In December, we took the opportunity of attending the Committee's public hearings to make the first public release of the study team's efforts: a summary of the case study and 45 recommendations concerning pesticides regulation by the PMRA.

The pesticides case study concludes with an urgent warning about the health effects in children from pesticide use. According to the study, the health of Canadian children is at risk because of the inherent weaknesses of the Canadian regulatory system governing pesticides and the lack of capacity to implement existing laws and policies.

The study examines the impact of pesticides on children because children are relatively more often exposed to pesticides compared to other groups. Many exposure routes exist for children from everyday applications in their homes and yards through to dietary exposure (including from breast milk) to residues from agricultural application.

The case study provides an exhaustive review of the scientific literature and concludes that the potential for children's health to be affected by pesticides is undeniable. Although more research needs to be done, this does not exonerate pesticides as human toxins, especially when one considers that children are far more vulnerable to pesticides than adults. Not only is there potential for harm, but in all likelihood some Canadian children are now enduring the negative effects of pesticides.

For instance, evidence suggests that the immune systems of Inuit children are being jeopardized by exposure to many persistent chemicals, including DDE (a by-product of the pesticide DDT) through their mothers' breast milk and through their traditional diet. Children in agricultural areas may also be at risk of cognitive deficits (nervous system damages) without obvious clinical symptoms of pesticide exposure.

Pesticide use in the home puts children and pregnant women and their babies at risk of health problems, including cancer and reproductive problems in later life. Children from poorer families, living in older housing, and children with chemical sensitivities or immune system problems are also more likely to be affected by pesticides. Lastly, many commonly used pesticides can be detected in our food supply, frequently at levels that would not be safe for young children. The cumulative effects of being exposed to many different pesticides over a lifetime represents an unacceptable risk to all Canadian children.

Children's health is being impacted because of our inadequate regulatory system, a system the federal government promised to fix as far back as 1994. The study finds that the great majority of prior commitments remain unfulfilled. Canadians don't really have a regulator. Rather, industry has a customer service department. The message is not only that children are being impacted by pesticides but that the federal government is knowingly refusing to act to make legislative changes and spend the necessary resources.

The study provides 45 recommendations covering a broad range of regulatory issues, including:

  • Changes to the Pest Control Products Act. For example: clarifying the core test for judging the acceptability of a pesticide; ensuring use of the precautionary approach when the weight of evidence suggests a potential unacceptable risk of harm; and enhanced citizen rights to appeal a registration decision.
  • Effective implementation of the Federal Toxic Substances Management Policyincluding immediate bans (or de-registrations) on pesticides which are persistent (stay in the environment a long time) and bioaccumulative (accumulate in fat cells) without wasting resources on re-evaluation.
  • Revisions to the Registration Process for new Products to ensure a broader array of impacts on children is taken into account including developmental neurotoxicity and endocrine disruption and impacts from cumulative exposures to pesticides.
  • Improved Inspection and Enforcement by the Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) to ensure appropriate pesticide use.
  • Development and application by the PMRA of a Sustainable Pest Management Policy to reduce overall pesticide use.
  • Improvements to public access to information that is essential to the understanding of the risks posed by pesticides exposure.

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Kathleen Cooper is a researcher at CELA