Pesticides are chemicals that avert or destroy unwanted pests such as insects, rodents, and fungi. Since pesticides are designed to harm or kill living things, it is not surprising that they can harm humans, too. Babies and children are more vulnerable than adults to pesticides because their bodies are developing; their defenses against toxicants are immature and do not yet provide adequate protection. Prenatal and early-life exposure to chemical-based pesticides can permanently change the way biological systems function. Children’s nervous systems and cognitive development can be adversely affected and some research studies have shown a link to increased cancer risk.
Pesticides can enter our bodies when we breathe air following the use of spray pesticides or when we eat fruits and vegetables treated with pesticides. Pregnant women pass their contact with pesticides on to their unborn babies. The Center’s research has shown that pesticides can easily cross the placenta during pregnancy, reaching the developing infant. Young children have greater exposure to pesticides than adults as they spend more time on the floor and grass where pesticides are commonly applied; they put objects and hands in their mouths, and they may eat more foods contaminated with pesticides.
What We Know About Pesticides
Research being conducted at the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health is showing that exposure to pesticides during pregnancy harms the healthy growth and development of babies in the womb and adversely affects development in early childhood.
Pregnant women in our Mothers and Newborns Study in Northern Manhattan and the South Bronx who were exposed to high levels of residential pesticides containing the organophosphates, chlorpyrifos (also called Dursban) and diazinon, had smaller babies than women with lower exposures. After the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned the use of these substances from residential use in 2000 and 2001, our studies documented decreased exposure in pregnant women to these particular organophosphates. However, chlorpyrifos and diazinon are still used as agricultural pesticides on fruits and vegetables; therefore, there is still some risk for possible exposure.
In addition, pyrethroid insecticides appear to be replacing the organophosphorus insecticides like chlorpyrifos and diazinon for residential pest control among the cohort. Levels of permethrin, a common pyrethroid insecticide, and piperonyl butoxide, a marker of pyrethroid exposure, have increased in personal air samples collected during pregnancy. Following the 2000-2001 EPA restrictions, both reporting of cockroaches in the home and use of spray pesticides during pregnancy have increased. Insect resistance to pyrethroids may be one possible explanation for these trends.
What You Can Do
Integrated Pest Management
Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is a safer, low-toxicity approach to keeping homes free of pests and the toxic pesticides that may harm early development. IPM reduces pests in your home and the level of harmful pesticides reaching mothers, their unborn babies and young children.
Residential IPM uses three main tools to minimize exposure to pesticides:
- Cleaning — Keep kitchen free of food spills and crumbs so pests do not come looking for food. Take out kitchen garbage every day.
- Low-toxicity pest control products — Avoid using residential pesticides in the forms of sprays, bombs, and fogs. Lower-toxicity pesticides, in the form of sticky traps, bait stations, and gels, are safe to use, last longer, and are more effective. Throw away old pest control products. Avoid products that have chlorpyrifos and diazinon. Examples include Tres Pasitos, Tempo, or Tiza China (Chinese Chalk). These rat and roach poisons are dangerous for children.
- Building repairs — Repair leaky pipes and close large holes, cracks, and crevices in your apartment to block pest entry points and eliminate breeding sites. Plug small cracks with caulk; for bigger holes, use steel wool or copper mesh and spackling compound.