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Do Pesticides in Farming Harm Children? : Research: A long-awaited study on how pesticide-use in agriculture affects kids was hampered by a lack of available government data.


The five-year wait for definitive word on the hazards posed by pesticides in the diets of infants and children was supposed to have ended this week with the release of a report from the National Academy of Sciences. But the study has left the highly charged issue far from settled.

Instead of developing a plan to eliminate chemical risk from food, the NAS in its 389-page study calls for more studies.

The much-anticipated report is the most comprehensive research project ever conducted on the threat posed to the young by farm chemical residues in food. And, if nothing else, the report's authors chide the federal government for lacking sufficient data to make a determination on whether infants and children are at heightened risk of illness from pesticides. In fact, the NAS report points out that the current regulatory system fails to consider infants and children in setting allowable levels for farm chemicals in food.

Yet, even without this data, the NAS concluded that "there should be a presumption of (pesticides') greater toxicity to infants and children." Meanwhile, the NAS encouraged children and adults to continue consuming fruits and vegetables because the nutritional benefits of these foods outweigh any long-term health risk from pesticide residues.

"We looked for data specifically on the risk to infants and children and it was hard to find," said Donald R. Mattison, dean of the Graduate School of Public Health at the University of Pittsburgh and the vice chair of the academy committee which prepared the report. "We were never able to say, 'Here is the evidence that children are adversely affected by pesticides'; that (evidence) does not exist. . . . There are deficiencies in the data, and we really don't know what children are eating and what their exposure to residues are. There has to be a change in the regulatory policy of the United States (to make that information available)."

Despite the extremely cautious language, environmental groups were cheered by the study.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, which released a study on pesticides and children that ignited the so-called Alar and apple controversy in 1990, claims the National Academy of Sciences report reaffirms their previous findings.

"Existing pesticide regulations of the Environmental Protection Agency are based upon diets of fully grown adults and fail to (take into) account that kids' diets are different," said Al Meyerhoff, NRDC senior attorney in San Francisco. "The young are more susceptible to toxics because their bodily defense mechanisms are not fully developed."

Meyerhoff said the NAS report is yet another reason for changes in the nation's pesticide policies. On Friday, the Clinton Administration announced that it intends to reform pesticide regulations and to reduce the amount of chemicals used by agriculture.

Food industry representatives were also relieved that the carefully written NAS study is much less volatile than previous reports on pesticide hazards, such as the NRDC's Alar study.

Food and agricultural trade groups were, nonetheless, disappointed that the NAS did not conclude that current pesticide regulations provide sufficient protection for all age groups. The findings make it clear that far more research needs to be conducted before any definitive statements about actual pesticide risk can be answered.

"We need to have better data, that is clear," said Jeffery Nedelman, vice president with the Grocery Manufacturers Assn., a Washington-based food industry trade group. "But this is no cause for alarm."

The NAS study points out numerous instances where federal regulations did not adequately consider the fact that children's developing systems may be more at risk than those of adults. Instead, government pesticide regulations have mistakenly considered children as "little adults."

"The (NAS) committee found that foods eaten by infants and children are underrepresented in surveys of commodity (pesticide) residues," the report states. There is a "need to improve methods for estimating (pesticide) exposure and for setting tolerances to safeguard . . . infants and children."

And the NAS criticizes the Environmental Protection Agency for being too sensitive to the pesticide needs of the food industry: "To ensure that infants and children are not exposed to unsafe levels of pesticide residues, the committee recommends that EPA modify its decision-making process for setting tolerances so that it is based more on health considerations than on agricultural practices."

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