If a study found that Acme Brand Cleaning products led to cancer in kids, you'd better believe that parents would step up: they'd boycott Acme Brand, they'd write angry letters to both the CEO and the government, and they'd create such an uproar that the cleaning products would be pulled from the shelves. The PR would be so bad that Acme Brand might even have to change its name.
Consumers have a lot of power when they vote with their wallets. But when it comes to things like pesticides and chemicals, the ability of individuals to enact change becomes a lot less likely. And still, after the study linking ADHD in children to pesticide exposure was released yesterday, several articles followed up by telling parents "what you can do" to keep kids safe.
Although the study is one of the more comprehensive takes we have on how exposure to chemicals can alter children's brains, it has a few flaws: first, it doesn't prove anything—because we can't inject kids with pesticides and then see how those children develop compared with those injected with a placebo, it's more difficult to say that pesticides cause ADHD—just that higher pesticide exposure is correlated with ADHD development in children. Maybe kids with the most exposure to pesticides also get the least amount of sleep, or the highest amount of fiber, and somehow that's the real cause.
But the other big problem is that the pesticides studied—organophosphates—aren't listed as ingredients on the average strawberry carton. Nor are they used on any one product or fruit. They're common ingredients in common pesticides, and to try to boycott them means abandoning nonorganic fruits and vegetables all together. That's expensive, impractical, and, for many low-income families, inaccessible. Then there's the fact that pesticides used on fruits and vegetables don't always stay there: they end up in the soil, the water, and the air.
It's difficult to admit that we, as individuals, don't have total control over our own health. Ours is a culture of personal responsibility, replete with the belief that if we just exercise, eat right, and get our mammograms, no ill health will befall us. Of course, that's just not true. While it's important to eat right, exercise, and take advantage of the preventive screening that's prescribed for us, there is more and more research indicating that the products we use, and even the air we breathe, may be affecting our health. The president's cancer task force recently released a list of common products that may lead to cancer, saying the risk from environmental hazards was understated, and another study tied exposure to chemicals found in plastic to obesity. All these studies echo research that we've heard before.
So, for now, we can stop drinking water from plastic bottles, we can wash our fruits and vegetables carefully (which does nothing to stop the pesticides that have seeped through the skin), and we can write angry letters to the government. But what's really needed is more science—to show as definitively as possible what's harming us and how much it takes for the deleterious effects to kick in—and more regulations that use the science to protect as many people as possible. (Government regulations have a nasty habit of moving the football, allowing certain levels of exposure until those too are proved to be toxic.) We also need to understand the alternatives: is the potential increased risk of cancer and ADHD still less of a detriment to public health than the effects of eliminating organophosphates? Maybe in a world without pesticides, it would be impossible to provide enough fruits and vegetables, leading to widespread malnutrition; the health risks from that would be greater than the cancer risk. Either way, that information should be available, and we should be asking hard questions and taking decisive action about the findings.
And "we" in this case means the government and corporations. When it comes to environmental exposure to chemicals, the only way to make real progress is through regulation and best corporate practices, which can stop the chemicals from getting into the air, water, soil, and consumer goods in the first place.
This, of course, takes time, and during that time our families are exposed to things that may or may not be doing us harm—something that's hard to quantify because we’re not sure how dangerous many of the chemicals are, and because we don't know what chemicals are in all the products we use. For those who are curious about the latter, check out the Environmental Working Group's database of cosmetic products, which lists the chemicals included in common personal-care products, and cite any relevant research on how those chemicals affect our health. (They also have a list of the foods most often contaminated by pesticides.)
Still, it's impractical and time-consuming to consult a list before you buy new shampoo, and the economic realities of many families means that we buy what's cheapest. That's why it's we need better oversight. As consumers, we deserve to choose from a selection of products based on how much they cost or how much we like what they do—even how much we like the ads—and not on how toxic they are to us and our children.
I discussed this topic today on PRI's The Takeaway. Listen to the interview here.