Pesticides Pose Risk in Rural and Urban Communities Alike

Organic Farm
Organic farms like this one in California offer a healthy alternative to conventional farms that use lots of pesticides.Photo by Mary Mactavish via Flickr

In a recent study of 60 children of Latino farmworkers in the U.S. state of North Carolina, nearly 90 percent of those tested were found to have pesticide metabolites in their urine, according to a report in Environmental Health Perspectives. On average, the children had four different pesticides present in their urine, posing a potential long-term health risk. “Because children are so much smaller than adults and because they are developing rapidly, the effects of pesticides on their neurological systems can be devastating,” says Danielle Nierenberg, a food and agriculture researcher at the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C.

Children of farmworkers tend to have higher levels of exposure to pesticides because they may live near or spend time in fields that are treated with chemicals, or the pesticides may be present on their parents’ clothing. But children in urban neighborhoods, particularly those in low-income homes, may frequently be exposed to the same or similar harmful chemicals, according to some reports. A 2006 study in Pediatrics noted that pregnant women in New York City are commonly exposed to pesticides used indoors to control cockroaches. The study found that children with high levels of prenatal exposure to chlorpyrifos, a once-common residential insecticide that has since been banned from residential use, exhibited delays in motor skills and mental development, as well as attention problems in later stages of life.

Pesticide use worldwide has increased dramatically since 1961, from an estimated 0.49 kilograms per hectare to 2.0 kilograms in 2004, according to Worldwatch’s Vital Signs 2006–2007 report. In 2004, global exports of pesticides totaled $15.9 billion, a new high for the industry. But the chemicals can run off of farmers’ fields and contaminate drinking water, and every year some 3 million people suffer from severe pesticide poisoning as a result of direct contact or other exposure.

Alternative farming methods that use little or no pesticides can benefit farmworkers and their families, as well as food consumers and the environment. Integrated pest management (IPM), sustainable agriculture, and organic agriculture all offer healthier options, according to experts. Although conventionally raised produce in the United States is less expensive in the short term, “we pay a high cost for it in lots of ways,” says Nierenberg.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.