Sunday, July 21, 2013

Protecting the Children

I'm returning to the blog world after a hiatus caused by a computer crash. I would love to celebrate my return with an upbeat, positive post, but I can't quite make myself write it. As much as I would prefer to put it far from my mind, I just can't ignore the story of what happened to 23 children in India last week. They went to school, ate lunch, and died. Their lives mattered and we owe it to them to learn what we can from their tragedy.

Although some initial reports on the story speculated that the children died from bacterial food poisoning, it didn't take long for officials to blame pesticide contamination for the deaths. Authorities have now confirmed that cooking oil used to prepare the lunch was contaminated with an agricultural pesticide. At this writing, it’s still unknown how the pesticide contaminated the oil, but one theory is that the container which held the oil may have been previously used for storing the dangerous chemical.

There are thousands of potentially harmful chemicals produced, but few are as potentially dangerous as pesticides, which are specifically designed to kill. As I noted in a previous blog postthe chemical used in the gas chambers of Auschwitz was a pesticide. Organophosphates (the type implicated in the India poisonings) are especially dangerous, but all commercial pesticides are capable of causing great harm.

Unfortunately, the incident in India is not unique. In 1999, children in Peru died in very similar circumstances. Schoolchildren between the ages of 3 and 14 ate a school-provided breakfast which was later determined to be contaminated with an organophosphate insecticide. Of the village's 48 children, 24 lost their lives to the chemical that day.

Pesticide-related deaths are not just a third-world problem, and the types of pesticides causing fatalities are not always what people might imagine. A report by The Center for Public Integrity notes that products (pesticides) used to treat head lice have been linked to "conditions ranging from headaches to death."  In an article entitled "The Hazards of Treating Head Lice"a mother shares the heartbreaking story of losing her son to leukemia and the association she believes exists between head lice treatment and his condition.

No, these are not pleasant stories. They are hard to think about and hard for me to write about. But surely these stories teach us something. They teach us that the issue of chemical toxicity is not just an academic one, but one with real-life consequences that can be larger than we might imagine. Most of us don't handle agricultural chemicals regularly, but it's common to use other types of pesticides without much thought. Do you immediately grab a can of bug spray when you see a bug in the house?  Do you use "weed and feed" type products on your lawn to discourage dandelions?  If so, I urge you to rethink those practices, if not for yourself, then for the children who might come in contact with the chemicals. A fact sheet on Weed and Feed notes that children are especially at risk from lawn chemical dangers because they play on lawns, put their hands into their mouths, and take in more chemicals in proportion to their body weight than adults do.

We can't change the tragic events that killed the children in India, Peru, and elsewhere, but we can do our part to make the world safer from chemical toxins. Let's not just read the headlines and move on. Let's pause, pray, and put into practice what we know.

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