A weed is not a weed

The Minnesota Health Department studies children’s exposure to pesticides

"A weed is a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered." So said Ralph Waldo Emerson, and researchers at the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) hope you take the poet’s words to heart.

MDH recently completed a study that measured children’s exposure to various chemicals in order to develop policies and public outreach campaigns geared toward educating the public about the harmful effects of pesticides, metals like lead and arsenic, volatile organic compounds like benzene and the like on young children.

The study outfitted 100 children, among them students from Lyndale and Whittier elementary schools, with special monitors in backpacks which measured their exposure to chemicals. Researchers also, among other things, conducted visits to the children’s homes in order to sample and analyze the level of various chemicals found there.

While estimated exposures to individual chemicals rarely exceeded reference doses, researchers were surprised at the relative lack of awareness among households about what a pesticide, for example, even is.

"We asked people to show us their pesticides," said Anne Kukowski, JD, MPH, "and they didn’t even think of insect repellent or flea collars."

Pamela Shubat, Ph.D., said that training a public to minimize its use of chemicals is tough. "People want products that work, and they trust products on the shelf — ‘More is better’ is a very common idea in this culture."

Shubat said that the MDH would much rather have people on their hands and knees using soap and water to clean surfaces.

But, even natural remedies are sometimes dangerous. One mother, Shubat said, called the MDH after the study because she was alarmed by the high level of arsenic in her son’s samples.

Turns out, she was giving the boy arsenium, which is a natural remedy for asthma.

"There is an assumption out there that anything natural is safe," said researcher Chuck Stroebel, MPH. "A lot of natural things are harmful."

Another surprising finding of the study is that the wealthier you are, the more likely you are to use pesticides and other chemicals around the house.

"We thought before the study that maybe those that are economically disadvantaged would have more bugs because of older or more substandard housing that has more moisture or leaks," Shubat said. "But, we found that maybe they can’t afford pesticides."

Shubat, Stroebel and Kukowski all agreed that people should take a step back and explore why they have pests in the first place — cracks or openings in the house,

perhaps — and rethink cultural assumptions they might have about certain "pests," like dandelion weeds.

"You need to ask some questions right up front," Kukowski said. "Like with dandelions, is this even a problem?"

In general, Shubat said, households should use the least toxic alternative possible. "If you have cockroaches," she said, "clean, clean, clean, because cockroaches are attracted by food and moisture."Some people just want to reach for a can of killer."

How can I reduce my child’s exposure to pesticides? Reduce the need to use chemical pesticides. Prevent pests from entering a building by closing or sealing openings. Eliminate sources of food and moisture so that the environment is not conducive to pests. Use physical means to control pests, such as fly swatters, whenever possible.

If you use pesticide products at home or elsewhere: (1) use products such as horticultural oils and diatomaceous earth on non-broadcast products such as baits or traps; (2) read and follow all label instructions, including instructions regarding the proper purpose of the pesticide product, the location for application, the quantity to be applied, the frequency of application, the method of application, and the time delay prior to re-entry of treated areas; and (3) remove food, dishes, toys and other objects before treating indoors.

Wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly before eating them.

Avoid treated areas during and after treatment.

Remove shoes at the door so that soil and dust are not tracked into the house.

Ensure that pesticide products are stored in safe containers and in places where children do not have access to them.

Source: Minnesota Department of Health

Web site:www.health.state.mn.us/divs/eh/children.com