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Dr. Claire Gervais, with the University of Wisconsin Department of Family Medicine, is also a member of the City of Madison Pest Management Advisory Committee and President of Healthy Lawn Team. She discusses the issue of lawn chemicals and children.
Should parents be concerned about pesticides?
I'd like to first explain that often people think the term pesticide means only insecticide. Actually, pesticides include insecticides, herbicides and fungicides; chemicals that kill insects, weeds, and fungi. Children are at greater risk of pesticide effects because they are smaller and their brain, liver, and immune systems are still developing. Also, they spend more time in direct contact with grass and more often put things in their mouth. Besides an increased risk of childhood cancers, such as leukemia and neuroblastoma (the most common brain cancer), the latest research shows that exposure to environmental chemicals contributes to the rise in childhood disorders such as autism and ADHD. A recent study shows that kids with ADHD have more pesticide metabolites in their urine.
Can we know if a child's medical condition is directly linked to pesticide exposure?
It is difficult to know if a child's medical condition has been at least partially as a result of exposure to pesticides since we do not measure pesticides metabolites in the clinical setting. However, we treat many children do have asthma, autism and ADHD. At least some of these children may be more sensitive to toxins in the environment. I do inform parents at each well child visit not to use toxic chemicals for weed or pest control. Additionally, I recommend using Bite Blocker instead of DEET for mosquito repellant.
What advice would you offer to parents and people who apply these chemicals so they are not a hazard to children?
Keep your windows closed if your lawn is being sprayed with herbicides (weed killers).
Keep your child off the lawn for several weeks after it has been treated since the chemicals can rub off on skin after it is dry.
Take your shoes off if you have walked on the lawn so it does not get into your house or carpeting where it does not break down.
Consider spot spraying, or incorporate at least some non-toxic lawn management.
Are all lawn and garden chemicals that dangerous and is it possible children could be exposed to some types of them without endangering their health?
Most conventional lawn herbicides (pesticides that kill weeds) are toxic to children. As previously stated, they increase the risk of a number of childhood diseases. Some children will be affected, and others will not. However, it is difficult to know whether your child will be affected. I recommend a precautionary approach — even though we may not know all the outcomes from pesticide use, it is best to protect our children by avoiding the use of these toxic chemicals, especially when there are many alternatives that are safe to control pests. For more information, parents can check out: