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Pesticides in produce may threaten kids.

Many fruits and vegetables sold in the United States contain one or more pesticides. In general, these residues are low and within concentrations allowed by law. However, because the foods they taint make up such a large proportion of a young child's diet, children may be ingesting unsafe quantities of toxic agricultural chemicals. Or so conclude a pair of reports issued this week.

"If you eat, you eat pesticides," asserts Richard Wiles of the Environmental Working Group (EWG) in Washington, D.C., a new, nonprofit spinoff of the Center for Resource Economics.

For Pesticides in Children| Food, the report EWG issued Monday, Wiles examined previously unpublished residue data on 17,000 food samples tested at Food and Drug Administration (FDA) laboratories nationwide and 3,000 samples analyzed for supermarkets by independent labs. He then coupled these data- all for foods available between 1990 and 1992 -- to federal estimates of children's consumption patterns and compared the resulting exposure estimates with health-risk data.

The analysis suggests that more than one-third of a child's lifetime exposure to and cancer risk from some pesticides will accumulate by age 5. Indeed, by his or her first birthday, the average American child's exposure to some carcinogenic pesticides will exceed the federal government's lifetime acceptable-cancer-risk threshold, calculated to result in one malignancy in every million individuals.

Though Wiles says this exposure is "completely unacceptable:' he says the risk involved is small and does not warrant avoiding fruits and vegetables.

"We're not talking about a food panic here," agrees Philip J. Landrigan of Mr. Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, chairman of a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) panel that reviews related issues in another report issued this week. "Parents should continue to emphasize fruits and vegetables in their children's diets?

However, the NAS panel's investigation of federal practices to limit pesticide contamination of food indicts the regulatory status quo.

The main problem, Landrigan says, is that the government has taken a "one size fits all approach:' basing pesticide-risk evaluations on the diet of a typical adult. But "children differ substantially from adults, not only in size but also in metabolism and in what they eat - and therefore in the pesticides to which they are exposed," he points out. To account for that, he says, "basic changes are needed in the current regulatory system."

To improve regulations, the NAS committee advocates that the government:

* conduct food consumption surveys of children to establish diets typical of specific age groups;

* develop toxicity tests for pesticides tailored to the unique physiology of infants and children;

* make residue limits take into account potential nondietary exposures to pesticides; and

* cut by as much as 90 percent allowable residues of pesticides that may be toxic to children or for which toxicity data remain inconclusive.

Federal researchers have also analyzed pesticide residues in the context of what children eat. In a study published earlier this month, Norma Yess and her colleagues at FDA in Washington, D.C., reviewed data from food assays by the agency's chemists between 1985 and 1991. Though their study includes data on baked goods, infant cereals, infant formulas, and combination dinners (including meat), it focuses on data from 10,600 samples of fresh apples, oranges, bananas, pears, milk, and fruit juices.

A 1992 FDA analysis found that among domestically produced foods in 1991, roughly 40 percent of grains and grain products, 51 percent of fruits, and 32 percent of vegetables contained pesticide residues, notes Ellis Gunderson, a coauthor of the new FDA report.

But pesticide concentrations tend to be within federally allowed limits. Indeed, among the six years of test data FDA analyzed for its new report, less than 0.5 percent of sampled foods violated those limits, the researchers report in the May June JOURNAL OF THE ASSOCIATION OF OFFiCIAL ANALYTICAL CHEMISTS INTERNATIONAL.

Raw foods tended to have the highest residues, the FDA team found. That's not surprising, they say, because these foods are tested before being washed, peeled, or processed - factors that can reduce pesticide residues by as much as 99 percent. Basing exposure estimates on these residues would probably exaggerate the amount consumers actually eat.

In a broader sense, however, "FDA seriously underreports pesticide residues in the food supply," Wiles charges.

While FDA can screen foods for more than 300 pesticides, not all 01 its laboratories employ all applicable tests. Among 12 regional FDA labs, seven used three or more multiple-residue screening techniques on 80 percent or more of the foods they tested, the EWG study found. The other five used just one or two screens to test 75 percent or more of their food samples. Not surprisingly, Wiles reports, "the seven most rigorous FDA labs reported twice the percentage of samples with detectable residues of one or more pesticides in apples, pears, bananas, tomatoes, and green beans."

Although FDA's data establish that crops bear multiple residues, federal agencies regulate pesticides as if exposure occurred individually and in isolation, the NAS report notes. In fact, multiple residues on a single crop are common, the EWG study indicates.

The independent labs' analyses of thousands of produce samples from supermarket warehouses indicate that residues of two or more pesticides occur on 62 percent of oranges, 44 percent of apples, and at least 25 percent of all cherries, peaches, strawberries, celery, pears, grapes, and leaf lettuce, notes Wiles. Some carried residues of six to eight pesticides, of which two or more might be suspected carcinogens, he says.

Pending data on how these pesticides may interact, regulators should consider taking a more conservative approach "by assigning toxicity equivalence factors to each of the compounds having a common mechanism of action" and then adding them, the NAS panel argues.

NAS tested this concept with five potentially nerve-damaging organophosphate insecticides used on foods. Based on residues observed for specific crops, the NAS committee found there were at least "weak" data to suggest "that for some children, exposures could be sufficiently high to produce symptoms of acute organophosphate pesticide poisoning."

The NAS panel emphasizes that it found no data showing that any pesticide residues have actually harmed children or infants. However, it did find that certain behaviors - such as eating patterns, food-preparation techniques, and pesticide-use patterns - might combine to put some young children at risk.

Briefed on both the EWG and NAS reports before their release, the EPA, FDA, and the Agriculture Department issued a joint statement on June 25. In it, the Clinton administration pledged to intensify efforts to reduce the use of highrisk pesticides and to develop safer pesticides through regulatory reform and new incentives to pesticide manufacturers. The statement added, "We expect to use the upcoming reports of the NAS and the EWG on children and pesticides as a basis for formulating the legislative and regulatory policies needed to put the administration principles into effect."
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Author:Pendick, Daniel
Publication:Science News
Date:Jul 3, 1993
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