They’re everywhere. The ubiquitous nature of pesticides in the modern world is enough to make your head spin. Among the myriad places you’ll find them: your food. Lab tests recently commissioned by the Environmental Working…
The ubiquitous nature of pesticides in the modern world is enough to make your head spin. Among the myriad places you’ll find them: your food. Lab tests recently commissioned by the Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy organization, detected an active ingredient in the widely used pesticide Roundup called glyphosate in nearly three-fourths of oat-based products it sampled, from popular cereals like Cheerios to Quaker Old Fashioned Oats to granola and snack bars. While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t consider glyphosate a carcinogen, it has otherwise been linked to cancer, as in a recent $289 million verdict in favor of a man with a fatal form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma who claimed exposure to Roundup on the job was to blame.
So what can you do?
While science continues to catch up to the risks of chemicals that feature prominently in our everyday lives, research shows pesticides — from those used on crops and lawns to insecticides employed to kill pests in workplaces and homes — can be hazardous. Children are especially sensitive. “Reducing pesticide exposure from conception through childhood may reduce children’s risk for developing certain cognitive, motor and behavioral issues, like problems with memory, reflexes and attention,” says Alexis Temkin, a toxicologist at EWG. Besides advocating for systemic change and greater transparency in pesticide levels in products, here are some practical steps you can take in your day-to-day life to protect yourself and your family.
Watch what you eat.
While tests, like those funded by EWG, find even organic food products and produce can contain pesticides, the amounts detected tend to be significantly lower than for conventionally grown foods. However, where it’s not possible — or in the budget — to buy all organic food, the organization recommends, for example, at least buying organic when purchasing produce that tends to have higher levels of pesticides, such as strawberries, spinach, nectarines and apples. These lists are laid out in EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, along with a list of produce that has among the lowest levels of pesticide residue, such as avocados and cabbage.
Wash what you eat.
Whether you buy organic or not, you’ll want to thoroughly wash your produce. “Holding the fruit or vegetable under flowing water removes more than dunking the produce,” notes the National Pesticide Information Center, a cooperative agreement between Oregon State University and the EPA. “Peeling or scrubbing produce like potatoes with a stiff clean brush or rubbing soft items like peaches while holding them under running water works best to remove residues.” While no washing method is 100 percent effective and some fruit and vegetable washing products capably remove dirt or residues, according to NPIC, these haven’t been proven to be more effective than water alone.
Take your shoes off at the door.
Maybe you’ve already told your kids to do this to prevent tracking dirt through your house. That can save you the hassle of constantly cleaning up when they get messy outside. But everyone should do this to prevent tracking in pesticides used outside on your shoes, Temkin suggests. Even if you don’t treat your yard, you can pick up pesticides unknowingly at other places, like a park or work. And if you’re in contact with pesticides or any hazardous chemicals on the job, keep work clothing away from the rest of your family (at work if possible or stored and washed separately from other clothes), and shower when (or before) you arrive home.
Yes, you should already be doing this. But are you, really? “It sounds overly simple, but follow the instructions,” says Charlotte Fadipe, a spokesperson at the California Department of Pesticide Regulation. For example, insect sprays may say open the windows or use gloves, but she notes that often people don’t. Be different. Put in the effort to read product labels. And heed cautions for substances used not only inside but also out, like for pesticides applied to the yard — whether you do it yourself or you hire a professional (frequently the safest option). For example, for a pesticide spray, everyone should stay off the lawn until it’s dried; if applied as granules, keep off the grass as long as those are still visible, NPIC recommends.
Know your antimicrobials.
Antimicrobial products are used to kill or slow the spread of microorganisms like bacteria and viruses — which can be particularly important during cold and flu season. But did you know some of these are regulated as pesticides by the EPA — like those wipes you use to clean your kitchen counter; while others are regulated as antiseptics by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, like similar-looking hand wipes, NPIC points out. It notes: “If a product shows ‘EPA’ anywhere on the label, you know it’s a pesticide and NOT meant for use on the body.” So along with the bureaucratic distinction, there’s a practical one. By knowing which antimicrobial is which, you can limit your exposure to those pesticides — some which may be harmful if touched or inhaled.
Safely store it.
Whether it’s bleach — some of which is also regulated as a pesticide — or another potentially hazardous substance, it’s important to follow instructions on proper storage. That means never transferring it to another container — like putting a liquid in a soda bottle. And, yes, that kind of thing happens more often than you’d expect, experts say. “Safe storage is a big one,” says Dr. Michael O’Malley, a medical consultant for the California Department of Pesticide Regulation. Safe storage is essential when it comes to reducing pesticide exposure and other risks. Some pesticides are flammable, for example. So keep pesticides properly stowed and well out of reach of little hands to avoid accidental poisoning.
Go easy on the insecticides.
Roaches, ants and other home invaders can be hard to remove. Fortunately, “home pest control insecticides are safer than they used to be,” says O’Malley, a volunteer clinical faculty member in the department of public health sciences at the University of California–Davis. But that doesn’t mean you should be using them at will. Instead, maximize other approaches to deter pests, like putting food away and cleaning frequently, Temkin says, as well as sealing holes and cracks where they’re getting in. Go easy on so-called bug bombs, or foggers, which can widely disperse pesticides, too. With these: “There’s a definite hazard, but the benefit isn’t quite as clear — just as far as I’m concerned,” O’Malley says. Call a professional for hard-to-get-rid-of pests like bedbugs.
Protect your pets — and those petting them.
It stands to reason that you’d want to keep ticks or fleas from bugging your dog. But if your pet needs insecticide treatment for these, it’s important to look for the least toxic option and, again, follow the directions. That includes making sure to wear gloves when you’re applying the treatment, and still washing your hands afterward. “For pet application, if you’re using pesticide on your pet, try to avoid contact between your child and your pet for an extended period of time,” Temkin says. Limit contact with the pet for 24 hours after it’s treated.