Pesticides and cancer in children: is there a connection?

Prianka Waghray, BA
Updated 2015

Current research shows the negative effects of pesticides on children. Pesticides have long been known to cause birth defects and poisoning if ingested. People who come into direct contact with pesticides on a regular basis, such as farm workers, sometimes vomit or have seizures and tremors as a result.[1] Now research is showing that even small quantities of rodent and insect killing pesticides, including tick and flea sprays used on pets, can be toxic over time to children who are more vulnerable because they are smaller and their bodies and brains are still developing. Weedkillers, such as Monsanto’s Roundup, which was banned in Sri Lanka in 2014 due to health concerns, are currently being investigated by scientists as well. In March 2015, the well-respected International Agency for Research on Cancer announced that Roundup probably causes cancer, based on animal studies [2], and a study published in August 2015 found harmful effects in the liver and kidneys of rats exposed to low levels of Roundup in drinking water. [3]

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which is the nonprofit organization for pediatricians, states that children can be harmed by pesticides in their daily life.[4] The AAP concludes that scientific evidence shows that exposure to pesticides early in life can result in childhood cancers, behavioral problems and decreased cognitive function (lower scores on tests to measure thinking, reasoning, and remembering). They recommend that parents reduce their children’s exposure to pesticides as much as possible, by using non-chemical methods to control bugs and other pests where they can, and by reducing the amount of pesticides in what children eat and drink. Dietary intake is children’s number one route of exposure.

Several studies have found, for instance, that exposure to organophosphates, which are common in household insecticides, in a child’s early years are connected with lower IQ levels and behaviors typical of kids with autism and attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders.[4] Other studies have found higher rates of cancer (especially brain tumors and a kind of white blood cell cancer called acute lymphocytic leukemia) in children exposed to household pesticides early in life.[1] These findings are not that surprising given that many chemicals used in pesticides, such as certain organophosphates, are classified as carcinogens (cancer-causing agents) by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.[5]

Several of these cancer-causing organophosphates have been banned from household pesticides. Unfortunately, they have been replaced with other organophosphates. Even if these replacement organophosphates are not proven to cause cancer, they can be dangerous and children should not be exposed to them.[1]

Young children more vulnerable because of their size, and they get more exposure to pesticides than the average adult because they are closer to the ground and often put whatever they find there, along with their own fingers, in their mouths. When bug spray or other pesticides are used in the home, chemical residues can linger in the air, on the floor or carpet where children crawl and play, and on toys.[1] Children breathe in more pesticide than adults, too, because they are down low where the residue accumulates. Lawn and garden herbicides can be tracked in the house by pets or people, and left in carpets and rugs.

How can we reduce children’s exposure to pesticides?

The good news is that parents can reduce their children’s exposure to these chemicals. The easiest way is to stop using them in your home and garden, and feed young children organic fruits and vegetables when possible. Alternative options include using roach motels, ant baits, and mouse traps instead of chemical sprays. You can weed the yard by hand instead of using weed killers (at least while your children are young), and by washing, scrubbing and peeling fruits and vegetables if you don’t buy organic produce. Although washing and peeling fruits and vegetables doesn’t get rid of the pesticides that have been absorbed into the growing vegetable or fruit, it is still better than nothing. Organic fruits and vegetables have the least amount of pesticide on and inside the fruit or vegetable.[5]

Prevention is best. Don’t leave out food overnight that can attract bugs. Discourage rats by covering garbage cans. When prevention efforts fail, use pesticides that are less toxic. If you aren’t sure how a product kills pests, look at the label. According to the EPA, pesticides with “warning” on the label are more dangerous to humans than the ones with “caution.” Products with labels that say “danger” are the most harmful.[4,5] Besides using the lowest risk products, be careful where you store pesticides, so that children can’t reach them and the chemicals won’t contaminate foods or medicines.

Is buying organic really better for you?

Researchers at Stanford University published a study in 2012 that concluded that organic fruits and vegetables are not more nutritious than conventionally grown produce. However, they also found that children who eat organic produce have significantly lower levels of pesticides in their bodies than children who eat regular produce.[5],[6],[7]

Unfortunately, organic fruits and vegetables are not always available, and buying them can increase your grocery bill. One way to eat organic more affordably is to limit your organic purchases to the fruits and vegetables on the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Dirty Dozen list.[8] These are the 12 fruits and vegetables that tend to have the highest amount of pesticide residues. The list is constantly being updated based on recent test results so check it regularly ( There is also a Clean 15 list, which lists 15 foods that have the least amount of pesticides and, therefore, are safe even when they are not organic. By following these lists, you can feed your children more safely without breaking the bank.

As of March 2013, the Dirty Dozen consists of the following foods:

  1. Apples
  2. Celery
  3. Sweet bell peppers
  4. Peaches
  5. Strawberries
  6. Nectarines (imported)
  7. Grapes
  8. Spinach
  9. Hot peppers
  10. Cucumbers
  11. Cherry tomatoes
  12. Potatoes

The Clean 15 list consists of the following foods, where it is not necessary to buy organic:

  1. Onions
  2. Sweet corn
  3. Pineapples
  4. Avocados
  5. Cabbage
  6. Sweet peas
  7. Asparagus
  8. Mangoes
  9. Eggplant
  10. Kiwi
  11. Cantaloupe
  12. Sweet potatoes
  13. Grapefruit
  14. Papayas
  15. Mushrooms

Bottom line:

Even small amounts of pesticides are very harmful for children.  They may cause behavior problems, harm their thinking and memory, and increase their risk of childhood cancers.  To help prevent these problems, limit your use of pesticides and herbicides and buy organic when the fruits and vegetables are otherwise likely to have a lot of pesticide residue.

[1] Karr CJ, Solomon GM, Brock-Utne AC. Health effects of common home, lawn and garden pesticides. Pediatr Clin N Am. 2007;54:63.
[2] Charles, Dan. A Top Weedkiller Could Cause Cancer. Should We Be Scared?
National Public Radio. March 24, 2015.
[3] Mesnage R., Arno, M, Costanzo, M, et al. Transcriptome profile analysis reflects rat liver and kidney damage following chronic ultra-low dose Roundup exposure. Environmental Health 2015, 14:70 .
[4] Council on Environmental Health. Pesticide exposure in children. Pediatrics. 2012;130(6):e1757.
[5] Forman J, Silverstein J. CLINICAL REPORT Organic foods: Health and environmental advantages and disadvantages. Pediatrics. 2012;130(5):e1406.
[6] Smith-Spangler C, Brandeau ML, Hunter GE, et al. Are organic foods safer or healthier than conventional alternatives? A systematic review. Ann Intern Med. 2012;157.
[7] Curl CL, Fenske RA, Elgethun K. Organophosphorus pesticide exposure of urban and suburban preschool children with organic and conventional diets. Environmental Health Perspectives. 2003;111(3):377.
[8] Environmental Working Group. EWG’s 2012 shopper’s guide to pesticides in produce. EWG’s 2012 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce Web site. Updated June, 2012.