Pesticides and cancer in children: is there a connection?

Prianka Waghray, BA
2015

Current research shows the negative effects of pesticides on children

In murder mysteries, rat poison and pesticides intentionally added to food are sometimes used to kill.  Scientists have also warned they can cause birth defects.  However, more recent research shows that relatively low levels of pesticides and indoor bug sprays can cause cancer and other serious medical problems in children, and possibly adults.

A study published in September 2015 found that children exposed to indoor bug sprays and other insecticides are more likely to develop leukemia or lymphoma, and possibly brain cancer.  This was an important study because it combined data from 16 smaller studies in a type of statistics called a meta-analysis.1. Although it was already known that many chemicals used in pesticides, such as certain organophosphates, can cause cancer, the new study aimed to find out how much exposure is needed to cause cancer in children.

The evidence about the risks of various chemicals has been growing.  In March 2015, the well-respected International Agency for Research on Cancer announced that the widely used weed killer called Roundup probably causes cancer in humans, based on animal studies 2.  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. Children are especially vulnerable to even small amounts of insecticides and pesticides that are meant to kill rodents or insects, even in tick and flea sprays used on pets, because children are smaller than adults and their bodies and brains are still developing.  Roundup, which was banned in Sri Lanka in 2014 due to health concerns, as well as other weed killers are currently being investigated by scientists to learn more about the risks for adults and children.

Even before the latest study, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which is the nonprofit organization for pediatricians, warned that children can be harmed by pesticides in their daily life.4. The AAP concludes that exposure to pesticides early in life can result in childhood cancers, behavioral problems, and 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 controlling bugs and other pests using non-chemical methods whenever possible, and by reducing the amount of pesticides in what children eat and drink.

Several studies have found, for instance, that children exposed to organophosphates, which are common in household insecticides, in their early years tend to have lower IQ and more likely to show the behaviors typical of autism and attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders.5 Environmental Protection Agency.6.

Several cancer-causing organophosphates have been banned from household pesticides. Unfortunately, they have been replaced with other organophosphates that have not yet been studied. Whether or not these chemicals cause cancer, they can be dangerous and children should not be exposed to them.7

Young children are more likely to be exposed to more pesticides and insecticides than adults 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.8 Children breathe in more pesticide than adults, too, because they are down low where the chemicals accumulate. Lawn and garden weed killers 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. It is also safer to use 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).

What about the fruits and vegetables that you buy?  Be sure to wash, scrub, and peel 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. However, if you can afford to buy them, organic fruits and vegetables have the least amount of pesticide on and inside the fruit or vegetable.9

One way to reduce the use of bug sprays and other chemicals in the home is to not leave out food overnight that can attract bugs or rodents. Discourage rats by covering garbage cans.

If you must use pesticides, use the ones 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 that say “caution.” Products with labels that say “danger” are the most harmful.10 11 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 have concluded that organic fruits and vegetables are not more nutritious than other 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.12,13,14

Unfortunately, organic fruits and vegetables are not always available, and they are often more expensive. One way to eat organic less expensively is to limit your organic purchases to the fruits and vegetables on the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Dirty Dozen list.15 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 (http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/). 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 January 2016, the Dirty Dozen consists of the following foods:

  1. Apples
  2. dirty dozen; peaches; pesticides and cancerPeaches
  3. Nectarines
  4. Strawberries
  5. Grapes
  6. Celery
  7. Spinach
  8. Sweet bell peppers
  9. Cucumbers
  10. Cherry tomatoes
  11. Snap peas – imported
  12. Potatoes

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

  1. Avocados
  2. Sweet corn
  3. Pineapplesclean 15; red onions; pesticides and cancer
  4. Cabbage
  5. Sweet peas frozen
  6. Onions
  7. Asparagus
  8. Mangoes
  9. Papayas
  10. Kiwi
  11. Eggplant
  12. Grapefruit
  13. Cantaloupe
  14. Cauliflower
  15. Sweet potatoes

The bottom line

Even small amounts of pesticides are very harmful for children.  They may cause behavior problems, harm children’s thinking and memory, and increase their risk of childhood cancers.  These chemicals can also harm adults, especially after years of exposure.  To help prevent these problems, limit your use of bug sprays, weed killers, and other pesticides and herbicides and buy organic fruits and vegetables that would otherwise have a lot of pesticide residue.

All articles on our website have been approved by Dr. Diana Zuckerman and other senior staff. 

  1. Chen, M., Chang, C., Tao, L., & Lu, C. (2015, September). Residential Exposure to Pesticide During Childhood and Childhood Cancers: A Meta-Analysis. Retrieved from http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2015/09/08/peds.2015-0006?variant=abstract  
  2. Charles, Dan. A Top Weedkiller Could Cause Cancer. Should We Be Scared?National Public Radio. March 24, 2015. http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/03/24/394912399/a-top-weedkiiller-probably-causes-cancer-should-we-be-scared  
  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 . http://www.ehjournal.net/content/14/1/70  
  4. Council on Environmental Health. Pesticide exposure in children. Pediatrics. 2012;130(6):e1757  
  5. Council on Environmental Health. Pesticide exposure in children. Pediatrics. 2012;130(6):e1757  
  6. Forman J, Silverstein J. CLINICAL REPORT Organic foods: Health and environmental advantages and disadvantages. Pediatrics. 2012;130(5):e1406  
  7. Karr CJ, Solomon GM, Brock-Utne AC. Health effects of common home, lawn and garden pesticides. Pediatr Clin N Am. 2007;54:63  
  8. Karr CJ, Solomon GM, Brock-Utne AC. Health effects of common home, lawn and garden pesticides. Pediatr Clin N Am. 2007;54:63  
  9. Forman J, Silverstein J. CLINICAL REPORT Organic foods: Health and environmental advantages and disadvantages. Pediatrics. 2012;130(5):e1406  
  10. Council on Environmental Health. Pesticide exposure in children. Pediatrics. 2012;130(6):e1757  
  11. Forman J, Silverstein J. CLINICAL REPORT Organic foods: Health and environmental advantages and disadvantages. Pediatrics. 2012;130(5):e1406  
  12. Forman J, Silverstein J. CLINICAL REPORT Organic foods: Health and environmental advantages and disadvantages. Pediatrics. 2012;130(5):e1406  
  13. 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  
  14. 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  
  15. 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. http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/summary/. Updated June, 2012