Want to protect your kids from cancer? Then ditch your pet’s flea collar. Toss the weed and insect killers. Cap the bug sprays. And take down the no-pest strips.
More than 70 million American households use pesticides each year on lawns, gardens, patios, and pets. But evidence is mounting that exposure to household pesticides raises children’s cancer risk. Consider the following Denver study:
Using the Colorado Central Cancer Registry and the records of Denver-area hospitals, scientists Jack Leiss and David Savitz of the University of North Carolina identified 252 children in the Denver region who developed cancer between 1976 and 1983 before the age of 14. Next, using local phone listings, they found 222 cancer-free children who had lived in the area during the same period and were similar to the cancer kids in every other way — age, sex, and neighborhood.
The researchers interviewed the parents of all 474 children, asking a number of questions:
The study found a strong association between garden-pesticide exposure and soft-tissue sarcomas (cancer of the muscles, abdomen, heart, nervous system, and blood vessels). Compared with the cancer-free group, the children with soft-tissue sarcomas were four times more likely to have been exposed to lawn and garden pesticides.
In addition, children who had leukemia were twice as likely to have been exposed to no-pest strips. Also significant, exposure to no-pest strips and home extermination were both linked to incidence of brain tumors and lymphomas (cancer of the lymph nodes).
This study is scary, but in epidemiology no single study, no matter how apparently convincing, ever makes a case. Although the numbers seem large, only about half of the 252 kids with cancers had been exposed to pesticides. Still, this study represents just one thread in a fairly tight fabric linking home pesticide use to cancer. The herbicide most likely to have been applied was 2,4-D, one of the ingredients in Agent Orange, the defoliant used widely in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War and linked in other studies to soft-tissue sarcomas. The most common insecticides were carbaryl and Diazinon, both associated with cancer in other studies. And the insecticide in no-pest strips, dichlorvos, has also been linked to cancer.
Many other studies have connected home pesticide use and childhood cancers as well. Notably, in 1987 researchers at the University of Southern California demonstrated that childhood exposure to home pesticides contributes to childhood leukemia, and a 1989 USC study concluded that home pesticide exposure was “the most consistent finding” distinguishing children in the study’ s sample who had leukemia from those free of the disease.
Officials with the Missouri Department of Health studied children with cancer and found that those who had brain cancer also had significantly more exposure to pet flea collars, no-pest strips, garden pesticides, and Kwell shampoo, a pesticide used to treat lice.
But if you throw away your flea collars and chemical yard pesticides, are you condemned to fleabites and a garden overrun with bugs and weeds? Not at all.
Michael Castleman is the best-selling author of Nature’s Cures, published by Rodale Press.