Tips: Reducing Your Exposure When Others Use Pesticides

Even if you never use pesticides yourself, you can still be exposed to them -- at home, school, work, or play -- by being in treated areas, as a consumer of commodities that others have treated with pesticides, or through food, water, and air that may have been contaminated with pesticides.

EPA describes sources of exposure other than your own use of pesticides. The agency also suggests ways to reduce your overall exposure. If you know or suspect that you, or others close to you, are sensitive to chemicals, consult an expert who can help you develop a strategy for handling your potential exposure problems.

Exposure Through Food

Commercial Food

To ensure a safe food supply, EPA regulates the safety of food by setting safety standards to limit the amount of pesticide residues that legally may remain in or on food or animal feed that is sold in the United States. Both domestic and imported foods are monitored by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to ensure compliance with these safety standards.

Because most crops are treated with pesticides at least some of the time, foods you buy at the grocery store may contain small traces of pesticide residues. Pesticide levels tend to decline over time because the residues break down and because crops are usually washed and processed before reaching the marketplace. So, while we all consume small amounts of pesticides regularly, levels in our food generally are well below legal limits by the time the food reaches the grocery shelves, EPA says.

Although EPA sets safety standards for the amount of pesticide residues allowed both in and on foods, you can take extra precautions to reduce the traces of pesticide residues you and your family consume in the food you buy. Follow these suggestions:

  • Trim the fat from meat and poultry because residues of some pesticides concentrate in fat. Remove the skin from fish.
  • Discard the fats and oils in broths and pan drippings.
  • Rinse fruits and vegetables thoroughly with water. Scrub them with a brush and peel them, if possible. Taking these safety steps will remove most of the existing surface residues, along with any remaining dirt. Note that surface cleaning (rinsing and scrubbing) will not remove pesticide residues that are absorbed into the growing fruit or vegetable before harvest.
  • Cook or bake foods to reduce residues of some pesticides even further.

Home-Grown Food

Growing your own food can be an enjoyable activity. It also is a way to reduce your exposure to pesticide residues in food -- especially if you decide not to use chemical pesticides on your produce and you choose a garden site where drift or runoff from a neighbor's use of pesticides will not result in unintended residues on your food. If your house is regularly treated for pest prevention, don't plant your garden where the treatments are applied.

Exposure Through Water

When pesticides are applied to land, a certain amount may run off into streams and rivers. This runoff, together with industrial waste, may result in low-level contamination of surface water. In certain settings -- for example, when sandy soil lies over a groundwater source that is near the surface -- pesticides can seep down through the soil to the groundwater.

To ensure a safe supply of drinking water, EPA's Office of Water sets standards for pesticides and other chemicals that may be found in drinking water. Municipal water systems test their water periodically and provide treatment or alternate supply sources if residue problems occur. Generally, private wells are not tested unless the well owner requests an analysis. If you get your drinking water from a private well:

  • Contact your state or local health department if you have any questions about pesticide or other chemical residues in your well water.
  • If your well water is analyzed and found to contain pesticide residue levels above established or recommended health standards, use an alternate water source for drinking and cooking. If you buy water from a local bottler, ask for the results of any recent pesticide analysis of the bottled water.

Exposure Through Air

Outdoors

Air currents may carry pesticides that were applied on properties nearby. You can reduce your exposure outdoors to airborne pesticide residues, or drift, by following these recommendations:

  • If a close neighbor or someone else is applying pesticides outdoors near your home, you may want to stay indoors with your children and pets. Keep windows and exterior doors closed.
  • If you live near fields, parks or other areas that receive regular pesticide treatment, consider planting a group of hardy, thick-branched trees or shrubs to help serve as a buffer zone and windbreak.
  • Careless application can lead to drift or direct spraying of non-target sites. If your property is accidentally sprayed during an aerial pesticide application, you should call your local, state or regional pesticide office. If you or someone in your family is accidentally sprayed, wash pesticide off immediately and change into clean clothes. Then call your local poison control center.

Some local governments require public notice before area-wide or broad-scale pesticide spraying activities take place. Affected residents are notified through newspaper announcements, fliers, letters or signs posted in areas to be treated. Some communities also have enacted "right-to-know" ordinances that require public notice (usually through posting) of lawn treatments and other small-scale outdoor pesticide uses.

Indoors

The air you breathe may contain low levels of pesticide residues long after a pesticide has been applied to objects inside a building or to indoor surfaces and crawl spaces, or after it has been tracked in from outside. Pesticides break down and disappear more slowly indoors than outdoors. In addition, many homes have built-in energy efficiency features that reduce the exchange of indoor and outdoor air and thus aggravate the problem. To limit your exposure to indoor pesticide residues:

  • Air out the building adequately after a pesticide is applied indoors. Open doors and windows, and run overhead, whole-house, or window fans to exchange indoor air for outdoor air rapidly and completely.
  • If you suspect that the air in your building is contaminated, consult knowledgeable professionals in your local or state health department or EPA's pesticide hotline (1-800-858-7378), 6:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Pacific time (9:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Eastern time) Monday through Friday, for advice on the appropriate steps to take.

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/2006 issue of Environmental Protection.

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