The National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences received headline coverage across America last month for its report "Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children." NRC concluded that there was "potential for concern" about the risk agricultural chemicals pose to those under the age of 18. Faster than you can shout "fire!" in a crowded theater, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration and the Agriculture Department announced that the Clinton administration would tighten pesticide safety regulations and move to ban the use of dozens of unspecified agricultural chemicals.
What makes those events all the more remarkable is the fact that the NRC study had virtually nothing new to say. The "potential for concern" uncovered by NRC was merely the lack of sufficient evidence to prove that fruits and vegetables are safe for children to eat. With that kind of burden of proof, it's no wonder that the regulatory state continues to expand.
Is there any evidence to suggest that pesticides present a risk to kids? Not really, and the NRC report fails to provide any new revelations on the matter, although it does cloud the issue with misleading statistics. For example, NRC reports that childhood cancers have increased 7.6% since 1973 but neglects to note the more significant long-term trend: Cancer mortality rates among children have been cut nearly in half since the 1960s. According to Dr. Edward Sondik of the National Cancer Institute, the slight increase in childhood cancer cases since the early 1970s is largely due to better diagnostic techniques, which identify cancers that previously went undetected or were misdiagnosed.
There are biological factors that suggest children could be at greater risk than adults when exposed to pesticide residues, but again the argument is speculative at best. "Older infants and young children may metabolize pesticides more extensively and eliminate them more rapidly than adults," NRC observes. Does that mean children are more or less susceptible to pesticide poisoning? Who knows? Animal tests suggests that, either way, "the direction of the difference is dependent on the chemical, and the magnitude of the effect is usually no more than 1 order of magnitude and often is considerably less."
The study's main concern is that pesticide regulation is largely based on adult, not childhood, dietary patterns. Thus kids could be eating larger quantities of pesticides than postulated by existing food quality standards. But how greatly do dietary patterns differ? It's hard to say: Generally it is assumed that infants and children eat proportionately more fruits and vegetables than do adults. But data collected by EPA indicate that it shouldn't make any difference. The agency undertook a massive examination of 86,000 samples of food (more than half of which were fruits and vegetables) in 1988 and found that 81% of those samples had no detectable pesticide residues.
Under such circumstances, it's clear that heavy consumption of fruits and vegetables does not appreciably threaten human health. That conclusion is underscored by annual FDA food surveillance data that indicate that fruits and vegetables rarely have anywhere near the maximum chemical tolerance level set by EPA.
Glossed over in the NRC report is the fact that the entire process of assessing risks of pesticide contamination is based on the dubious practice of animal laboratory tests. Given that animal laboratory tests have found half of all natural chemical compounds to be carcinogenic, including vitamin A, one must question why NRC or the federal government continues to rely on a practice that is "based on at least 50 assumptions, none of which have been scientifically demonstrated," as noted by Ronald Hart, director of the National Center for Toxicological Research.
Even so, the NRC report makes a case for erring on the side of safety. No one could really object to that, but EPA already does so by multiplying pesticide safety standards by a factor of between 100 and 1,000 to account for the very uncertainties identified in the report. Kids might be more vulnerable to toxins than adults, but the differences (if they exist) are "usually less than a factor of approximately 10fold." Isn't that already accounted for by EPA's practice of utilizing a 100 to 1,000 safety factor?
The NRC acknowledges that its report "should be regarded as an assessment of methodology rather than a specific attempt to characterize the proportion of children at risk." Yet the environmental lobby, the Clinton administration and the mass media insist that the report is something it is not: a brief proving once and for all that our kids are at risk thanks to lax pesticide standards. What the report does say is that there's a lot we don't know; that what we don't know may or may not imply that children are at greater risk; and that, until we learn more, food safety standards ought to be tightened. The first two statements are true, but the conclusion -- that food safety standards are inadequate today -- simply flies in the face of all the data.