California Children’s Environmental Health Month shows risks of pesticides, lead

SACRAMENTO – California’s proclamation of October as Children’s Environmental Health Month highlights the need to protect children from exposure to pesticides and hazardous chemicals like lead, which can result in a greater risk of disease later in life.

The Environmental Working Group has long been at the forefront of the fight against threats to children’s health, empowering parents with information to avoid toxic exposures in everyday environments. EWG and the advocacy group Children Now sponsored the California Legislature’s formal proclamation in August dedicating October to children’s health.

“California children are exposed to unhealthy air, pesticides, lead and other heavy metals that threaten their well-being and healthy development,” said Ted Lempert, president of Children Now, a statewide children’s advocacy organization. “Children’s Environmental Health month is an opportunity to raise awareness among policymakers and spur them to take critical action, like eliminating toxic pesticides and cancer-causing weedkillers that will ultimately improve our children’s health and their environment.”

Pesticide exposure

Many children face potential health harms now and later in life due to pesticide exposure.

In September, EWG scientists published a peer-reviewed paper that found communities of color are at greatest risk of pesticide exposure in Ventura County, Calif. The paper builds on an earlier EWG report that showed how more than 32 million pounds of toxic pesticides, including many linked to cancer and respiratory and developmental problems, were used on county farm fields from 2015 to 2020, including near schools.

“Communities of color are shouldering the biggest burden of pesticide exposure and children are more sensitive to the harmful effects of pesticides than adults,” said Alexis Temkin, Ph.D., an EWG toxicologist and co-author of the paper.

The data show greater pesticide application in communities with a higher percentage of people who identify as Latino, Black and Asian American. The areas in the county where very little or no pesticides are applied are largely inhabited by white residents.

Many of the pesticides widely used in Ventura are linked to serious harm to children’s neurological and behavioral development, and associated with endocrine disruption and cancer, among other health problems. Of the 290 pesticides used for which there is toxicity information, 113 were associated with multiple health issues.

More than one in four homes in Ventura are within a half-mile or less of fields sprayed with pesticides linked to serious health harms. Epidemiological studies in California found that living near pesticide spraying is linked to increased risk of cancer and harm to the respiratory system and the developing fetus, such as low birth weight and reduced IQ.

Thirty-three public elementary schools in the county are located within a quarter-mile of farming operations where pesticides are sprayed, EWG's mapping tool shows.

Some pesticides can drift long distances, potentially miles from the fields, even in a light breeze, into nearby neighborhoods, schools and playgrounds, sometimes forcing residents into their homes and students into their classrooms until the pesticides dissipate.

A 2014 analysis found Latino children in California were far more likely than white children to attend schools near the heaviest pesticide use.

There are no state or federal limits on the number of agricultural pesticides allowed in air, so any amount of a single pesticide or pesticide mixture in air, over any period, is legal.

The California Department of Pesticide Regulation performs seasonal air monitoring for pesticides in certain high-use areas. But the frequency of monitoring and number of monitoring locations do not fully capture the heavy agricultural use in Ventura County or the state.

“Agriculture is a billion-dollar industry and a rich part of the county’s history. But pesticide-intensive farming exposes thousands of children to the risk of regularly inhaling toxic chemicals,” said EWG President and California resident Ken Cook.

“Our findings show why state and federal policymakers must act to better safeguard kids from dangerous exposure to pesticide drift,” Cook said.

In 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics weighed in on pesticide exposure in a landmark report, saying:

Children encounter pesticides daily and have unique susceptibilities to their potential toxicity. Acute poisoning risks are clear, and understanding of chronic health implications from both acute and chronic exposure is emerging. Epidemiologic evidence demonstrates associations between early life exposure to pesticides and pediatric cancers, decreased cognitive function, and behavioral problems.

Replacing lead lines

Lead exposure remains a serious problem. Despite decades of effort, California children are still being exposed to lead, often through contaminated drinking water.

“We have known for decades that even a tiny amount of lead exposure during childhood can affect neurodevelopment, including behavior disorders, lowered IQ and attention deficit disorders,” said Lendri Purcell, president of Families Advocating for Chemical and Toxics Safety, and co-president of Jonas Philanthropies, a long-time supporter of the EWG's children’s health initiative. “The fact that children with higher lead blood levels have higher delinquency risks should be a major indicator of alarm and action.”

Purcell is the mother of a lead-impacted child and former special education teacher.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there is no safe level of lead exposure for children. Lead is a severe neurotoxin. Even small amounts of lead can lower a child’s intelligence, cause behavior and learning problems, slow growth and impair hearing.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry says children absorb 50 percent of lead they ingest, and malnourished children absorb lead faster. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates as much as one-fifth of a child’s exposure to lead is from drinking water, and infants who consume mostly formula are exposed to 40 to 60 percent of their exposure to lead from water used to mix formula.

“All children can be exposed to lead in drinking water, but kids from lower-income families are considered most at risk of lead poisoning,” said Susan Little, senior advocate for California government affairs at EWG. “For decades, we’ve known how children are poisoned by lead. California needs to replace all its lead lines and galvanized lines now.

“Kids with elevated lead levels in their blood can have serious real-world consequences that last the rest of their lives. Our littlest children are highly susceptible to lead’s damaging effects and absorb as much as 50 percent of the lead they take in through drinking water,” she added.

In September, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law a measure to streamline communications between laboratories that test blood samples for lead and health care providers. Blood lead levels in children are usually detected in screenings during routine doctor visits. The law also changes the reporting threshold for blood lead levels, from five micrograms per deciliter to the CDC’s reference value of 3.5 micrograms per deciliter.

Lead pipes can be found throughout California’s drinking water systems, especially as short lead goosenecks, or the connectors between the larger lines, and fittings, or the galvanized iron pipes attached to those goosenecks and fittings. The pipes can cause lead to leach into drinking water, so efforts are underway to remove them.

But if they’re not removed carefully, large amounts of lead can be dislodged and get into the water during and after the replacement activity, entering the water residents drink. Even partial replacement of lead lines can leach high levels of lead for up to 18 months.

Disturbing even short lead pipes can increase drinking water lead levels, especially when they are connected to galvanized lines. A San Francisco pilot project of lead gooseneck removals showed that lead in some homes’ drinking water spiked, from 160 parts per billion, or ppb, up to 1,400 ppb after removal of lead fittings attached to galvanized lines. Those detections are nearly 100 times the EPA’s 15 “action level” of 15 ppb, which requires water utilities to tackle lead contamination.

Water utilities across California have started to replace lead pipelines. But information obtained by EWG suggests much of the work is being performed without vital health safeguards.

“California has not ‘gotten the lead’ out of its drinking water. And the fact that the state has only done partial lead service line replacements is for lack of a better work: frightening,” added Purcell.

For example, the city of Sacramento told the state’s water board in June 2020 it had already replaced the thousands of lines it oversees. But the board hadn’t yet approved the work, so the lines were replaced without any formal direction about public health protections. The city still hasn’t shown whether it informed affected homeowners, gave them filters or tested their water after the removals. And many lead fittings attached to galvanized lines were replaced when the city installed new water meters. But they were partial replacements only – the city did not replace lead or galvanized lines on the customer’s side.

Similarly, the city of Gilroy told the state in May 2020 it had started to remove lead lines in 2018, but the board did not give final approval, or recommend minimal public health protections, until 2021. San Bernardino and Placerville also replaced lines before final approval from the water board. State records show these cities only partly replaced the lines and left in place the customers’ lead or galvanized lines.

Removing lead pipes and fittings in our drinking water system is key to reducing public lead exposure. But the work must be done carefully, and with protections in place that will prevent consumers from unwittingly ingesting lead released during and after the removals.

Should you live near an area affected by lead line removals or replacements, consider:

  • Calling your utility and ask for at least three months’ advance notice of a plan to replace, remove, repair, disturb or investigate any part of a lead service line or galvanized line downstream of a lead fitting that provides you with water.
  • If the utility plans to replace any part of the lead service lines or galvanized line downstream of a lead line or fitting serving your home or business, finding out whether your property also contains lead pipes, fittings or galvanized lines downstream of those pipes or fittings. If it does, replace your lead or galvanized lines at the same time the utility replaces its lead service line.
  • Installing or purchasing a water filter certified to remove lead, and using it for as long as 18 months after any lead service line work or replacement.
  • Removal of lead fittings, such as goosenecks, can cause lead to enter your water, so filter it if any part of a lead service line is disturbed, removed or replaced.
  • Asking your utility to test your drinking water for lead on a regular basis – especially if the repairs or replacements have already taken place. 
  • If your utility does not provide drinking water testing upon request, testing the water yourself. You can find a guide to do so here.
  • If the repairs or removals have already taken place, and small children live in your home, possibly testing their blood lead levels.


The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that empowers people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Through research, advocacy and unique education tools, EWG drives consumer choice and civic action.

Children Now is a non-partisan, whole-child research, policy development and advocacy organization dedicated to promoting children’s health, education and well-being in California. The organization also leads The Children’s Movement of California, a network of over 4,800 direct service, parent, youth, civil rights, faith-based and community groups dedicated to improving children’s well-being.

Families Advocating for Chemical & Toxics Safety was founded in 2017 by two North San Francisco Bay Area mothers who want to help connect families locally, regionally and across the country who are trying to keep their children safe from the ubiquitous toxic exposures in our modern world.

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