Are you sitting at your desk, ready to read this blog and about to bite into a shiny red juicy apple? I hesitate to even say this (but how else can I get your attention?) – do you know where that apple came from? How that apple got to you? And what chemicals might have been used to get it to you, all shiny and red? And did humans or other living beings, including insects get harmed in getting that apple to look that shiny and perfect? (Disclaimer: there will be frank and open talk about insects in some of these columns.)
I am betting your answer is no, and you can admit it without shame because many of us don’t, myself included. But, more and more, I’ve started to think about my health, the health of other human beings, and the health of other living things, and how all we are all connected. See through this lens of infinite interconnectedness, I’ve begun to wonder and also have come to believe that somehow in our pursuit of ‘the shiny red apple’ we’ve overshot the mark so to speak and things are out of balance.
For the coming few months, I’ll be devoting regular blogs to emerging information on chemicals and pesticides in our environment and in us. The aspiration will be to offer up some data (friends, I am first and foremost a science geek and biologist, confession made), some deep insights on how not to get overwhelmed by it all, and some simple actions or intentions you can set on to help restore some of the balance both in yourself and in your relationship with other living beings.
Now, on to pesticides.
Scientists, doctors, and public health officials often frame an emerging public health problem by saying something like “Increasing reports in the scientific peer-reviewed literature about the association between eating blue pickles and the risk of turning blue raise concern about how many blue pickles we should be consuming.” (STOP worrying: not a real example, although I think I have seen blue pickles in a jar somewhere so I wonder…).
Did you zone out somewhere around ‘peer-reviewed literature’ or did you just snooze at “increasing reports?”
What does this mean in sort-of plain language? It means that many, many people like myself, who see the world through the framework of science and problems and puzzles to be solved and sorted, and have spent hours and hours of their lives squirreled away indoors, poring over numbers, and reports, and hours and hours in labs conducting multiple tests, and in the field conducting multiple surveys and studies…just to be sure, finally push back from their desk and say “I think there is a link here.”
Eventually if those links add up and point to a problem, something big happens in the medical literature world. And this month, something big happened.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued a policy statement and technical report on emerging data on the risk of health problems children suffer when exposed to pesticides. These health problems are nothing to sneeze at (pun intended) since they range from allergies to behavioral problems to cognitive/brain function impairment to childhood cancer.
How do kids come in contact with pesticides? It’s easy to think that what we are talking about here and what the AAP might be talking about are the tragic and accidental poisonings that happen when a small child gets into some insecticide from the garage. But those are actually few and far between, pretty easily fixed with cabinet locks and so on.
What’s been more hidden, harder to measure, and far, far, far more widespread is the long-term, low dose exposure that kids and all of us get every day. And kids are probably uniquely sensitive to such exposures because of how they are still developing. But adults are also affected.
Where are children exposed to pesticides? Well frankly, where aren’t they?
In the home: food, chemicals used to keep away those ‘pests’ such as ants who come to the kitchen seeking the same thing we do –food, shelter! In the yard – on the grass, on the plants, where again, we want lawns to ‘look good.’ In school – again in the food, on the grass, in the hallways where chemicals might have been used to control pests. And in our water. Think about it: they are everywhere.
Okay, this is the point in the blog where you are probably feeling overwhelmed, maybe even a little freaked out. So pause, take a breath and just realize what it feels like to feel overwhelmed and freaked out by this all. You may even feel a bit hopeless. Or you may think: “Is something about the way I am living harming my child? Or myself?” I feel daunted by my own exposure and I am not a parent. But I have lots of kids who I am close to and it makes me wonder….
Believe me, I got asked this question a lot as a physician and there is no easy way to answer it. We just have to stay with how things are, not freak out entirely but maybe freak out just enough that we are motivated to change something.
And then we can take a breath and say, what can I do differently? And where do I start?
So here are my tips for the Do One Thing (D.O.T.). DOT is an approach on how, in the face of feeling overwhelmed, we can break things down into small chunks so we can figure out where to start. (I not come up with D.O.T. but I like it. If you know who came up with it, please let me know so I can give them credit).
1) Remove one pesticide/herbicide from your home and yard:
Look in your cabinets? Do you really need to kill ants by spraying them with insecticides? Ants are attracted into our homes by their desire to find food so as much as possible, keep food stored away tightly and keep surfaces clean. And remember, for the most part, ants help us live better by doing many useful jobs such as feeding on other pests (e.g., fleas, caterpillars, and termites), dead insects, and decomposing tissue from dead animals. Go ants! If they didn’t do this, well use your imagination…things would kind of pile up. (Remember the disclaimer: frank insect talk).
If living in harmony with ants doesn’t feel like the next best step for you, consider using Integrated Pest Management (IPM) approaches instead. IPM uses less toxic methods to control insects. (read more at: http://www.beyondpesticides.org/saferchoice/index.php)
2) Switch to eating one fruit or vegetable grown organically as much as possible:
As a physician, I believe that eating fruits and vegetables is one of the single best things we can probably do for our long-term health. And I also know that pesticide use in food growing is widespread. So over the next few weeks, try to pick one fruit or vegetable that you may want to try to buy organic most of the time. Organic food costs more and may not be available near you, so this may not be the best D.O.T. option for you.
If it is, then think about picking a food that you eat a lot of. For example, I eat a lot of greens – spinach, kale, chard – and they are more likely to have pesticides use on them so I try to buy them organically. There are several guides out there but I use the Environmental Working Group’s Shoppers guide to the “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen.”
3) Help protect our kids and our water: Support ‘Smart On Pesticides’ Maryland, a petition asking the State of Maryland to help make reporting of pesticide application mandatory, instead of voluntary and to create a database to help collect this information in one place.
In Maryland, we suffer from a critical gap in knowledge of when, how much, and where pesticides have been applied. While registered pesticide applicators are required to keep such records, they are not required to report them. Part of the problem is the lack of a centralized, online reporting database. In contrast, health care providers are required to report suspected or confirmed pesticide exposures.
Thanks for reading…and hope to hear from you.