Thursday, January 29, 1998

Overexposed || Organophosphate Insecticides in Children's Food

Organophosphate Insecticides in Children's Food

Every day, nine out of ten American children between the ages of 6 months and 5 years are exposed to combinations of 13 different neurotoxic insecticides in the foods they eat. While the amounts consumed rarely cause acute illness, these "organophosphate" insecticides (OPs) have the potential to cause long term damage to the brain and the nervous system, which are rapidly growing and extremely vulnerable to injury during fetal development, infancy and early childhood.

Based on the most recent government data available on children's eating patterns, pesticides in food, and the toxicity of organophosphate insecticides, we estimate that:

  • Every day, more than one million children age 5 and under (1 out of 20) eat an unsafe dose of organophosphate insecticides. One hundred thousand of these children exceed the EPA safe dose, the so-called reference dose (see p. 3), by a factor of 10 or more.
  • For infants six to twelve months of age, commercial baby food is the dominant source of unsafe levels of OP insecticides. OPs in baby food apple juice, pears, applesauce, and peaches expose about 77,000 infants each day, to unsafe levels of OP insecticides.

    This estimate very likely understates the number of children at risk because our analysis does not include residential and other exposures to these compounds, which can be substantial, and because EPA's estimates of a safe daily dose (the so-called references dose or RfD) are based on studies on adult animals or adult humans, and almost never include additional protections to shelter the young from the toxic effects of OPs.

Our analysis also identified foods that expose young children to the most toxic doses of these pesticides. We found that:

  • One out of every four times a child age five or under eats a peach, he or she is exposed to an unsafe level of OP insecticides. Thirteen percent of the apples, 7.5 percent of the pears and 5percent of the grapes in the U.S. food supply expose the average young child eating these fruits to unsafe levels of OP insecticides.


  • A small but worrisome percentage of these fruits -- 1.5 to 2 percent of the apples, grapes, and pears, and 15 percent of the peaches -- are so contaminated with OPs that the average 25 pound one year old eating just two grapes, or three bites of an apple, pear, or peach (10 grams of each fruit) will exceed the EPA (adult) safe daily dose of OPs.


  • The foods that expose the most children age six months through five years to unsafe levels of OPs (because they are more heavily consumed) are apples, peaches, applesauce, popcorn, grapes, corn chips, and apple juice. Just over half of the children that eat an unsafe level of OPs each day, 575,000 children, receive this unsafe dose from apple products alone (Table 2).


  • Many of these exposures exceed safe levels by wide margins. OPs on apples, peaches, grapes, pear baby food and pears cause 85,000 children each day to exceed the federal safety standard by a factor of ten or more.

This Environmental Working Group study utilizes detailed government data on food consumption patterns and pesticide residues to conduct the first comprehensive analysis of the toxic dose that infants and children receive when the entire organophosphate family of insect killers is assessed in combinations, and at levels, that actually occur in the food supply.

The study was prompted by the 1996 Food Quality Protection Act, which requires the government, for the first time, to consider the total risk posed to humans when they are exposed to any and all pesticides that have a common mode of toxic action and a similar type of effect. Prior to 1996 law, the government determined a separate, "safe" dose.