Pesticide traces found in kids here
Seattle Times staff reporter
In a first-of-its-kind study examining the exposure of urban and suburban children to household pesticides, University of Washington researchers have discovered traces of garden chemicals in the urine of dozens of Seattle-area preschool kids.
All but one of the 96 children tested were found to have minute amounts of pesticide in their urine, according to researchers, who noted that "children whose families reported pesticide use in their gardens had significantly higher (chemical) concentrations than those who had gardens but did not use any pesticides."
The concentrations in the children were low — in the parts-per-billion range — and it's unlikely the exposure would produce acute symptoms, such as headaches, vomiting, blurred vision or breathing difficulty, said Alex Lu, a university research scientist who helped conduct the study.
But the question — yet to be resolved in the scientific community — is whether long-term exposure, even minimally, represents a health risk. Until that answer is known, the researchers suggest caution when using organophosphate pesticides.
"What's the prudent thing to do? My approach has been: We should be cautious, not alarmists. We should take steps that are easy to take," said Richard Fenske, a professor of environmental-health sciences who worked on the study.
University researchers looked for any trace of organophosphate pesticides — such as diazinon and Dursban — in the children. Dursban contains the active ingredient chlorpyrifos and is also known by that name.
The pesticides are effective in killing insects by attacking their nervous systems, and Dursban is the most widely used household pesticide made in the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The EPA has mandated that the retail sale of Dursban and diazinon for household purposes be restricted or eliminated, starting this year. The agency said the four-year phase-out of the two chemicals is necessary to protect the health of the public, especially children.
The UW study and EPA rules have also prompted King County hazardous-waste officials to launch a public-awareness campaign aimed at promoting organic-gardening practices, a position supported by the UW scientists.
The study, conducted in 1998, was published in the March edition of Environmental Health Perspectives, a journal of the National Institutes of Health. The children who participated in the study ranged in age from 2 to 5. Researchers went to two health clinics — one in South King County, the other in North King County — and asked parents if they would allow their children to be screened.
Since the early 1990s, UW researchers have been investigating the relationship between pesticides and exposure to children. Three years ago, the UW received a major $6.6 million grant to intensify its research efforts. The findings from the federally funded research will be helpful to scientists looking into how children are exposed and the vulnerability of their still-developing nervous systems to certain chemicals.
Just last year, UW researchers released the results of a study of pesticide exposure among 109 children in rural areas. Conducted in Chelan and Douglas counties, the study looked at children's exposure to azinphos-methyl and phosmet, two chemicals used to control coddling-moth damage in apple orchards.
The urine tests for that study showed more than half the preschool children had been exposed to pesticides at higher levels than federal regulators considered safe. Unlike the Seattle-area study, the rural children were most likely exposed to the chemicals during spraying season and from their parents, who unknowingly carried residue into their homes on clothing.
One reason the Seattle study showed a far greater percentage of children with trace amounts of pesticide in their urine is because the testing methodologies are more advanced than those of earlier studies, according to Fenske.
Meanwhile, King County hazardous-waste officials have been visiting area hardware stores, talking to consumers about organic alternatives to using chemicals, especially for lawn care.
Their efforts will continue tomorrow and the next Saturday at selected Seattle-area McLendon and Home Depot hardware stores.
Annette Frahm, a county waste official who is leading the campaign, said some area residents routinely use Dursban and diazinon pesticides to kill the pesky crane fly, which resembles an elongated mosquito.
The fly's larvae live in and eat lawns, leaving noticeable brown spots and prompting some people to purchase pesticides. But through proper lawn-care techniques, insect damage can be controlled organically, Frahm said.
But not everyone subscribes to the notion that the pesticides automatically are bad news.
Ed Walter, president of Washington Tree Service, questioned whether minute amounts of pesticide in children really pose a serious health threat.
"If you're talking about kids and low-level amounts, and these products are going to be gone in three to five years, then you're kind of beating a dead horse," said Walter, whose company uses organic pest controls as well as pesticides.
Brad Wong can be reached at 206-464-2750 or firstname.lastname@example.org.