Pesticides at even low levels harmful to children: expert

September 07, 2015 12:00 am | Updated 05:48 am IST

Bruce Lanphear

Bruce Lanphear

A series of studies on a wide range of chemicals have shown that even at levels previously thought to be safe, they can adversely impact children, Bruce Lanphear, a public health physician in Canada, has said.

He was speaking to The Hindu ahead of a talk on ‘Impact of pesticides on developing brains’ organised by Thanal, Pesticide Action Network India, and the Kerala Gazetted Officers Association here on Sunday.

The programme here is part of a four-city speaking tour by Dr. Lanphear based on research behind the video ‘Little things matter: the impact of toxins on the developing brain’ that is narrated and co-produced by him.

A professor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada, Dr. Lanphear studies the impact of foetal and early childhood exposure to environmental neurotoxins on children’s health.

He said studies had shown that organophosphate pesticides (OPs) adversely affected children, particularly if exposure occurred during foetal development. This could be measured in terms of intellectual ability of children, behaviour, in particular ADHD, and criminal behaviour if exposure was to lead.

The brain, particularly developing brain, he said, was very susceptible to toxins. Focus now was on brain development as an indicator of toxicity of these chemicals.

Asked how one measured this exposure to toxins, he said one could measure parts per billion of chemicals in a mother’s blood or urine as an indicator of exposure that happens to a foetus. “We’ve also explored other things such as measuring cord blood or meconium.”

Man, he said, came ‘pre-polluted.’ “There are dozens or likely hundreds of chemicals that we are exposed to when in the womb,” he said.

“If we are really concerned about public health, we should assume that these chemicals may be convenient but they also have the potential to be toxic, and so we should test them before they are put into consumer or food products.”

Products with toxic chemicals were cheaper in the short term but the long-term cost to society was devastating. For instance, lead poisoning cost the U.S. $50 billion every year, in reduction in lifetime earnings, special education, in treatment for radiation, and criminal behaviour, he said.

There were alternatives such as organic farming or green chemistry that cost only a little more, he said. The question was should the focus be on prevention or a majority of the funds be spent on finding cures for illnesses caused by chemicals.

India, he said, should leapfrog over old technology that did not work and learn from the mistakes of the West by finding out what chemicals were toxic and avoiding them.

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