If dandelions were rare and fragile, people would knock themselves out to pay $14.95 a plant, raise them by hand in greenhouses, and form dandelion societies and all that. But they are everywhere and don’t need us and kind of do what they please. So we call them “weeds,” and murder them at every opportunity. Well, I say they are flowers, by God, and pretty damn fine flowers at that.
— Robert Fulgham
Avoid using chemicals on your lawn, and call your city to find out if they spray for mosquitoes (The CDC recommends larvaciding with BT rather than adulticiding, which is less effective and exposes citizens to health risks).
The highly credible American Academy of Pediatrics released an official Statement on Pesticides in 2013 explicitly linking pesticide exposure to childhood cancers and cognitive effects:
Chronic toxicity end points identified in epidemiologic studies include adverse birth outcomes including preterm birth, low birth weight, and congenital anomalies, pediatric cancers, neurobehavioral and cognitive deficits, and asthma. These are reviewed in the accompanying technical report. The evidence base is most robust for associations to pediatric cancer and adverse neurodevelopment. Multiple case-control studies and evidence reviews support a role for insecticides in risk of brain tumors and acute lymphocytic leukemia. Prospective contemporary birth cohort studies in the United States link early-life exposure to organophosphate insecticides with reductions in IQ and abnormal behaviors associated with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and autism.
The President’s Cancer Panel supports these findings with their report on Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk, and exposure to landscape chemicals and other pesticides is one of their main targets:
The entire U.S. population is exposed on a daily basis to numerous agricultural chemicals, some of which also are used in residential and commercial landscaping. Many of these chemicals have known or suspected carcinogenic or endocrine-disrupting properties. Pesticides (insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides) approved for use by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) contain nearly 900 active ingredients, many of which are toxic. Many of the solvents, fillers, and other chemicals listed as inert ingredients on pesticide labels also are toxic, but are not required to be tested for their potential to cause chronic diseases such as cancer.
The report provides evidence that the burden of cancer is far higher than it should be:
Despite overall decreases in incidence and mortality, cancer continues to shatter and steal the lives of Americans. Approximately 41 percent of Americans will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives, and about 21 percent will die from cancer. The incidence of some cancers, including some most common among children, is increasing for unexplained reasons.
The report also concludes that children, both current and potential, are at far higher risk than adults:
Children of all ages are considerably more vulnerable than adults to increased cancer risk and other adverse effects from virtually all harmful environmental exposures. In addition, some toxics have adverse effects not only on those exposed directly (including in utero), but on the offspring of exposed individuals. Numerous environmental contaminants can cross the placental barrier; to a disturbing extent, babies are born “pre-polluted.” Children also can be harmed by genetic or other damage resulting from environmental exposures sustained by the mother (and in some cases, the father). There is a critical lack of knowledge and appreciation of environmental threats to children’s health.
Another resource for reducing chemical exposures is The Midwest Pesticide Action Center at http://midwestpesticideaction.org/
For more information, visit
President’s Cancer Panel
Midwest Pesticide Action Center
President’s Cancer Panel
CDC Biomonitoring Project
Healthy Schools Campaign
EPA. Pesticides and their impact on children: Key facts and talking points. http://www.epa.gov/oppfead1/Publications/pest-impact-hsstaff.pdf
Environmental Working Group’s “Ten Americans”
Years ago, when I was putting together a symposium on climate change at Benedictine, a top climate change scientist, when asked if he would debate climate change for a live audience, said no quite definitely, and referred me to Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway to explain why. Representing as a debate the basic science on climate change — it is occurring; we are primary causes — misrepresents the truth because the consensus of science shows that the debate is over. Now, scientists are investigating changing mating seasons of squirrels in the Canadian arctic; improved models for predicting rainfall in the Midwest; number of people killed by excess heat waves in Europe; and a million other subsidiary problems premised on established science on climate. Merchants of Doubt shows how a handful of scientists, many well funded by industry, have employed debate and doubt in the popular media to stall policy changes on issues ranging from tobacco to pesticides to ozone-layer thinning to climate change. Devra Davis makes a similar case for cancer-causing pollution like tobacco smoke and pesticides. Both these works recognize the similarities amongst different kinds of science denial — all motivated by greed. Although the New York Times just gave the movie version mixed reviews, chiefly because of its unrealistic optimism, I highly recommend the book on which it is based.
If you have wondered why, if environmental health impacts are so dire and children are dying, we are not doing more, this is one highly credible explanation.
There is a limited window of opportunity to comment directly with the EPA about the re-registration of chlorpyrifos, one of the deadliest of the organophosphates, the pesticide that we have every reason to believe killed Katherine, our beloved and brilliant eight-year-old. You can comment on the EPA notification website directly at http://www.regulations.gov/#!submitComment;D=EPA-HQ-OPP-2008-0850-0200 This is the preferable option, and it is possible to upload documents; I attached my book proposal on environmental chemicals and childhood health.
You may also go through an advocacy group like EarthJustice, but the EPA does not count duplicate or near-duplicate emails, so online activism may otherwise come to nothing. When I posted, the EPA website said it had received only twelve comments on this re-registration; the EPA appears to be doing its best to stay in bed with the chemical industry and to close its ears to regular citizens. Whichever way you go, it’s important to customize your message so they know you mean it. Why do you wish to protect your children or your pets or yourself or future generations from deadly toxins? Here is what I said:
It’s not just farmers who are harmed by pesticides. Children are routinely and catastrophically exposed to these chemicals. Our daughter Katherine died of leukemia we have every reason to believe was caused by mosquito spraying with chlorpyrifos without our knowledge or permission. This exposure to deadly substances…deadly *particularly* to preschoolers…is tantamount to legal murder. Our beloved Katherine was killed just as certainly and predictably as if someone had sprayed our house with bullets. And indeed that might have been preferable, given her terrible suffering. Nearly all the scientific literature of the last 50 years supports this connection between childhood cancer and organophosphates. In 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared pesticides a clear and present danger for childhood health: “Children encounter pesticides daily and have unique susceptibilities to their potential toxicity…. Epidemiologic evidence demonstrates associations between early life exposure to pesticides and pediatric cancers, decreased cognitive function, and behavioral problems” (AAP 2012). How many such letters must the mothers of dead children write, when the substance of our knowledge about the dangers of pesticides was in place when Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring more that 50 years ago?
Please take a moment to make a difference. The next life affected could be your own.
How well I remember Katherine’s last birthday, her eighth. Dressed in gauzy pink as the Queen of Hearts, she presided over a fairy-tale party with blackbird pie, a fairy scavenger hunt, and all her guests dressed in red, pink, and white. We had delayed chemo a few days to make sure she felt well; we knew it was unlikely to matter: they had only encouraged us to hope for a year after her second bone marrow transplant.
I don’t know what my beloved daughter wished for that day, blowing out the candles on her heart-shaped cake; we were a little superstitious about asking. What I do know is that because of reckless pesticide use in our city mosquito spraying program, as well as countless other chemical exposures, none of her dreams came true; none of her wishes were fulfilled. She wanted to finish learning cursive; she wanted to adopt a baby so she could watch it grow; she wanted to live to be an old lady. Every night I prayed she would have a long and happy life; not long before she died, she plaintively pleaded with me that she not have a short and sad one. But at that point, there was nothing I — or any of us — could do.
There is something you can do. Now. I appeal to you all in the name of my dead first-born child — unique, brilliant, and beautiful — to do these five things in her memory.
1) First, rid your home, lawn, and garden of pesticides and other toxic chemicals. For ideas about alternatives, please consult The Midwest Pesticide Action Center at http://midwestpesticideaction.org/
2) Call your City and find out what they do for mosquito and dandelion control. If they spray, attend a City meeting and make your case. All the evidence that these chemicals cause cancer and other dire health defects is contained in The President’s Cancer Panel and the American Academy of Pediatrics Statement on Pesticides. But if you need help, I will personally consult and supply you with all the materials needed to convince a skeptical audience.
3) Contact your legislators and ask for protections against chemicals that contribute to cancer, birth defects, autism, ADHD, and lower IQs.
4) Call schools, universities, and hotels and ask what their policies are for pesticide use. Demand pesticide-free environments for your children and yourself.
5) Eat organic. A 2006 article in Environmental Health Perspectives showed that when kids go on an organic diet, metabolite levels of pesticides in their urine fall to non-detectable levels within weeks.
I just participated in an excellent webinar on pesticides and cognitive deficits in children run by the Pesticide Action Network of North America. If you are not familiar with this organization, they provide an abundance of high-quality, well documented information on the subject. One of the best reports for a general audience out there is A Generation in Jeopardy: How Pesticides are Undermining our Children’s Health and Intelligence, available for free at http://www.panna.org/publication/generation-in-jeopardy.
Much of the webinar, which featured Bruce Lanphear, MD, MPH, and PANNA activists, repeated information already posted on this blog and elsewhere. Pesticides and other environmental chemicals are responsible for dramatic increases in childhood cancer, autism, ADHD, and lowered IQs. But a few things stood out. One item is a new study (Shelton, 2014) again linking organophosphate pesticides like chlorpyrifos to autism. Children who lived in closer proximity to sprayed fields had significantly higher rates (OR 1.6) of autism. But as Dr. Lamphear said, the cause for this and other maladies is likely multifactorial. Another figure, which I have not seen before, is the efficiency rate for preventing cognitive deficits caused by pesticide exposure: for every one dollar spent in prevention, a benefit in the amount of $17-220 is gained, in health care costs alone. That, of course, is aside from emotional and social burdens such deficits create. For reference, the gold standard for prevention in public health, vaccines, results in $60 of reduced health care costs for every dollar spent. Notably, Kristin Schaefer, PAN activist, pointed out that all regulation of pesticides evolved from laws to prevent farmers from being cheated by hucksters, in 1910. The laws are still designed only for registration and accurate labeling; they are not now and were not then meant to protect human health and the environment. Finally, I would like to quote the verdict of Dr. Lamphear in assessing the entire lack of regulation of pesticides for protection of health in the U.S. He identified the root of the problem as “sociopath” corporations, who cannot be expected to self regulate and who are now “majority shareholders in our country.” He pointed out that even though he is one of the top experts in the field, he is still not able to protect his own children from contamination. Only government regulation can do that. On a more positive note, he thinks that young people get it; perhaps we just need to “let the old guys die.” While I am all for that, I would say we cannot wait so long. New babies are born every day, every single one of them coming into this world already contaminated with scores of carcinogens, mutagens, neurotoxins, and endocrine disruptors, their intelligence already permanently damaged and their body burdens high.
If you are willing to speak up and do something about the deplorable poisoning of our children in this country, please visit PANNA’s action center: http://www.panna.org/get-involved/action-center
My best day at work — and I have had many great days — was not actually at work. I was replying to emails from President Bill Carroll from my vacation in a 1930’s cabin on the Wisconsin River. This was the day that, after many years of gathering evidence and speaking to various groups on campus, Benedictine University took a leadership role on a very important issue of sustainability: natural lawn care. This would never have happened without the cooperation of Campus Services; the active support of the Faculty, Student Senate, and the Center for Mission and Identity; and the unflagging campaigning by the student leaders of SEEDs, our student environmental group. From now on, like the Chicago Park District and a growing number of school districts in the area, weeds will be controlled only by mowing. It’s important for everyone to share the information about health and environmental concerns so that the public understands that dandelions are a sign that the lawns at Benedictine are safe for everyone to enjoy.
Even those who were not able to attend the Healthy Lawn Symposium last week at Benedictine can enjoy the presentations by accessing documents on Dropbox at https://www.dropbox.com/sh/1sjv48tgiwlw30r/AAAGIqI7IUzN9mpj2FZJHJtma?dl=0. The presentations approached the problem of lawn chemicals in particular and toxic contamination more generally from a wide range of disciplines: science, public health, anthropology, advocacy, social sciences, and ethics. It would be impossible to convey the richness of the discussions that resulted, but I hope you will be able to enjoy a taste of what it was.
Healthy Lawn Community Forums
March 10, 2015
Presentation Room, Lisle Campus
April 22, 2015
Presentation Room, Lisle Campus