New attention given to what children eat Produce favored despite chemical threat

July 06, 1993|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,Staff Writer

Pushing her two girls in a tandem stroller, Nancy Todd left the Towson farmers' market with a bag of fresh string beans and some practical wisdom about feeding safe foods to finicky youngsters.

Buy from local farmers, many of whom shun chemical preservatives because of the short haul from field to market. Peel fruits and vegetables to get rid of any pesticides on the surface. And shop at health food stores whenever possible.

This is her strategy, but she knows her limits. Local growers use plenty of chemicals to kill insects and weeds. Peeling doesn't purge the pesticides inside produce. Baltimore is hardly a mecca of organic specialty stores. And we cannot really measure the risks of pesticides.

With that in mind, she has one last piece of advice.

"You don't think too much about it," Ms. Todd, 34, said Friday. "If you do, you won't eat anything." At the end of a week that was a landmark in three decades of debate over pesticide safety, many parents were more enlightened but still confused about the safety of the foods they feed their children.

First, the Clinton administration announced plans to speed the development of safe pesticides, banish the unsafe ones and encourage the use of "integrated pest management" -- farming methods that combine the use of beneficial insects, crop rotation and limited doses of chemicals to control pests.

It was a startling break from what environmentalists viewed as years of presidential inertia, when past administrations emphasized bounteous harvests over food safety. Now, activists hope, agriculture may be pushed into smarter methods of pest management, just as Detroit was forced into fuel efficiency.

Next, the National Academy of Sciences unleashed a 363-page attack on the way government has regulated pesticides, saying safety tests have failed to account for biological differences that may make children more susceptible than adults to pesticide risks.

Of particular concern, said the academy, is the possibility that chemicals designed to cripple insect nervous systems could have a dulling effect on a child's neurological development.

Children may be more vulnerable to cancer risks and damage to their immune systems and evolving reproductive organs, the report said. Calling for a new era in safety testing, the report said scientists should test pesticides on "juvenile" as well as adult animals, ending a practice in which children were considered as adults in small packages.

Scientists should also take into account the quantities of fruits and vegetables that youngsters stuff into their small frames and the relatively narrow assortment of food they consume, the report recommended.

They should also consider the cumulative effects of similar pesticides on a child's development, not just the danger posed by a sole chemical.

Although the news may give parents hope for a healthier future, many were surely left wondering what to do about their food in the meantime. The National Academy of Sciences urged parents not to alter their shopping habits, but to keep feeding their children plenty of fruits and vegetables, wherever they can find them.

"The most important message we want to give parents is that the food supply overall in this country is very good," said Dr. Phillip J. Landrigan, a New York physician who chaired the panel.

"One of the things we're very pleased about is that parents in the last eight to 10 years have been feeding more fruits and vegetables," said Dr. Landrigan, a pediatrician at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. "That's something that needs to continue. There's room for further improvement, but this isn't something that's going to be achieved by parents panicking, by parents throwing away fruits and vegetables."

Although the organic food industry has grown almost tenfold since 1980, with sales of $1.4 billion in 1992, panel member Barbara Boardman said the academy recognized that stores selling low- or no-pesticide foods are inaccessible to many parents.

She said a parent weighing the multiple risks facing children -- traffic, falls and electric plugs, to name a few -- may be wiser to take a quick trip to the nearby supermarket than to drag the children across town to the health food store.

"Your chances of changing your child's life expectancy by managing pesticide risk are not going to be really major compared to the other risks that you as a parent have to manage," said Dr. Boardman, a pediatrician at Boston City Hospital.

In a statistical sense, she said, pesticides may threaten society without posing much risk to one child. This means the risk to one child may be very small, but large enough to account for hundreds or even thousands of cancers and neurological problems when spread over a population.

The academy's message played much like a Rorschach pattern, interpreted differently by each person.

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