Two Reports on Pesticide Residues in Food: a Flawed
Regulatory System and Endangered Children
July 6, 1993
On June 29, 1993, the National Academy of Sciences
(NAS) released its long-awaited report -- "Pesticides in the
Diets of Infants and Children" -- analyzing the regulation
of pesticides in food, and the potential consequences for
children in the U.S. The NAS concluded that current testing
procedures for measuring pesticide toxicity in children are
flawed; sampling measures for foods containing pesticide
residues consumed by infants and children are inadequate;
models for evaluating pesticide intake from various
exposures (e.g., drinking water, air, and soils) are
incomplete; and overall procedures for determining risks to
children are largely in error. Despite the panel's findings
that the current regulatory system is seriously flawed with
respect to pesticides' potentially detrimental effects on
children, the panel issued no warnings to avoid those foods
most likely to contain dangerously high levels of
The NAS report recommends that when health and
scientific data are unavailable, "There should be a
presumption of greater toxicity to infants and children."
The vast majority of pesticides used in the United States
have not been fully tested for short-term health effects,
long-term health effects, or basic toxicological information
on so-called "inert" or secret ingredients. Dr. Philip
Landrigan, chair of the NAS study panel, stated, "The single
most important point is that the current system for
regulating pesticide residues for foods in the United States
needs to be fundamentally restructured so that health
concerns become the priority, especially when it comes to
children." After more than four years of study, the NAS
report reached similar conclusions as those arrived at years
ago by other independent organizations, including the
Natural Resources Defense Council in their 1989 report
-"Intolerable Risk; Pesticides in Our Children's Food."
Another report, "Pesticides in Children's Food", was
released by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) just prior
to the appearance of the NAS report. Based on data surveys
of nearly 20,000 food samples tested between 1990 and 1992
by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and private
laboratories, the EWG found that more than half of the food
samples had detectable, albeit generally low, residues of at
least one pesticide. Kenneth Cook, president of the
Environmental Working Group, remarked, "If you eat in this
country, you eat pesticides. You eat small amounts of
numerous pesticides, you quite likely eat them every day,
and quite possibly in nearly every meal."
Richard Wiles, the author of the EWG report, noted that
when an additive approach to risk assessment is conducted
for "just eight pesticides in 20 fruits and vegetables, we
estimated that the average child exceeds the EPA lifetime,
one-in-a-million risk standard from pesticides in food by
his or her first birthday. We consider risks of this
magnitude to be unacceptably high." The report also
documented 42 different pesticides were detected on
tomatoes, 38 detected on strawberries, and 34 detected on
apples. Paralleling the NAS critique, the EWG report noted
that the EPA assesses the health risks from pesticides as
though people are exposed to them one at a time.
The Environmental Working Group suggested the phasing
out of pesticides that pose the greatest risks to children.
The EWG report also recommended the application of strict
health standards for all pesticides and the development of
alternative farming practices. On June 25 the EPA, USDA (US
Department of Agriculture), and the FDA issued a joint
statement that "we expect to use the upcoming reports of the
National Academy of Sciences and the Environmental Working
Group on children and pesticides as a basis for formulating
the legislative and regulatory policies needed to put the
Administration principles into effect."
It remains unclear how the Administration will
reconcile the distinct policy prescriptions contained in the
two reports. The NAS study is predicated on finding
acceptable levels for pesticide residues in food and
improving risk management techniques, whereas the EWG
prescribes reducing most pesticide applications and
eliminating known cancer-causing and similarly hazardous
pesticides wherever practical alternatives exist. To state
the same dilemma in different terms, the NAS report seeks to
adjust the regulatory system within the chemical-intensive
context of industrial agriculture. In contrast, the EWG
report suggests a fundamental change in the way that food is
produced in the United States.
To obtain a copy of the NAS report, write: The National
Academy of Sciences, Office of News and Public Information,
2101 Constitution Avenue, N.W. Washington, D.C. 20416 or
call 1(800) 24 6242). The cost of the report is $47.95
(prepaid) plus $4.00 for shipping.
To obtain a copy of the EWG report, write: The Environmental
Working Group, 1718 Connecticut Avenue, N.W., Suite 600
Washington,D.C. 20009 or call 1(202) 667-6982.
"U.S. Is Taking Aim at Farm Chemicals in the Food Supply,"
by Marian Burros. New York Times, June 27, 1993 pages 1 &
"Pesticide Regulations Flawed, Panel Says," San Francisco
Chronicle, June 28, 1993. page A5.
"NAS Study Says Pesticides Harmful to Children and Infants,"
Farm Policy News Bulletin, Volume 1, Number 65, June 28,
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