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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Pesticides, Herbicides and Childhood Cancers

Air Date: Week of

Children are exposed to a wide range of chemicals around the home, everything from cleaning agents to pest control sprays. Many of these chemicals are ingested and residues are often found on clothes and skin. (Photo: CC0, public domain)

Pesticides and herbicides control pests and weeds, but new analysis suggests they also pose a significant threat to the health of young children. Host Steve Curwood and the study’s senior author, Chensheng Lu of the Harvard School of Public Health, report that exposures can increase children’s risk for leukemia, lymphoma and brain tumors.


CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios at the University of Massachusetts Boston and PRI, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.
Pesticides and herbicides, by definition, are killers—killers of destructive insects and weeds—but that doesn’t mean they’re without risks to people, particularly children and infants. A new “study of studies” from the Harvard School of Public Health found that the dangers from chemical exposure in and around the home might increase the risk of developing childhood cancers. The researchers pooled data from 16 international studies, comparing levels of pesticide exposure in groups of children with and without cancer. Flea and tick pet collars, roach and ant sprays and pest control services were common indoor exposures, while outdoor exposures were mainly from herbicide use. The study’s senior author, Professor Alex Lu, suspected that the recent uptick in childhood illnesses, particularly cancer, might be due to pesticide exposures in the home, but before this study, the data wasn’t there to support this. Now, says Professor Lu, there is more cause for concern.

LU: We find that for household members that report use of pesticides in indoors, specifically insecticides, there is a more than 40% increased risk of childhood leukemia or childhood lymphoma. Outdoor herbicide use also increased the risk of childhood leukemia 26%, but the association’s not as strong as indoor insecticide use.

CURWOOD: The study also found a weak link to another childhood cancer.

LU: We also looked at childhood brain tumors, but its association to either indoor insecticide use or outdoor herbicide use was not as strong as leukemia or lymphoma.

CURWOOD: But Alex Lu notes that reducing the risk of exposure is manageable, for instance using natural pest controls or fixing a window screen or a crack in the foundation of the home, could be enough to put some distance between children and pesticides.



Study Press Release: Exposure to pesticides in childhood linked to cancer

Study: Residential Exposure to Pesticide During Childhood and Childhood Cancers: A Meta-Analysis

More about the findings of the meta-analysis


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