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By Megan Boyle, Editorial Director

Despite major improvements in treatment and survival, children’s cancer rates are rising in the United States, leaving parents and scientists alike searching for evidence of what’s behind the trend. A new report sheds light into one avoidable risk: household pesticides.

Children exposed to insecticides inside their homes have a 47 percent higher risk of developing certain cancers in childhood, according to the report by Alex Lu and his colleagues at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.

The research team examined 16 high-quality studies of children’s risks and found that indoor exposure to insecticides was associated with higher rates of leukemia and lymphoma, the most common cancers diagnosed in children. Exposure to outdoor herbicides (weed killers), but not insecticides (bug killers), was associated with 26 percent higher childhood leukemia risk.

Due to the complexity of studying people in the real world, there aren’t any studies examining whether childhood exposures to pesticides increase the risk of developing cancer in adulthood. But childhood exposure could also be causing health issues that manifest later in life.

What can parents do to protect their children? Stop using pesticides on your lawn and garden. Indoors, use pesticides only as a last resort. Then follow these tips to keep your home pest-free.

Take preventive steps. You can make changes in your home to deter pests like roaches, ants, wasps and rodents from living there in the first place. Schools and daycares should do the same.

  • Reduce pest temptations. Pests are attracted to food and water. Store food securely in airtight bins, containers or the refrigerator. Don’t leave food or liquids out overnight and take out the trash regularly. Remember your pet’s food is just as tempting to a pest as your own.
  • Clean thoroughly and often. Minimize food crumbs by regularly cleaning kitchen counters, tables, ovens and stovetops, and anywhere else crumbs collect, such as cabinet corners. Visit EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning for product recommendations.
  • Do your kids leave a trail of crumbs throughout the house? Those remnants may be collecting on floors, in carpet fibers and along baseboards. Vacuum often – vacuums equipped with a HEPA filter are best. Bonus: this helps eliminate pest eggs as well.
  • Block their paths. How do pests get into your home in the first place? They commonly enter through small holes or cracks in walls, windows and floors. Block these openings with caulk, paint, screens or other sealants. If you don’t know a pest’s point of entry, look for droppings or track marks, then follow the trail.
  • Stay tidy. Pests look for places to hide, so try to limit clutter and piles. Completely empty and clean your pantry periodically, as well as cabinets under sinks.

Try natural treatment options. If pests still find their way into your home, you should consider a natural treatment option. Some families have success with herbs like rosemary, spices like cinnamon or essential oils like tea tree. You might also use a trap. There are both kill and no-kill choices on the market.

Always follow safety precautions. If your pest problem requires chemical treatment, always exercise caution to reduce harmful exposure to your family. Read product labels and instructions, and follow safety guidelines. Use only the minimum amount of pesticide recommended, wear gloves and open windows and doors for ventilation. Try to keep your children and loved ones out of affected rooms and thoroughly clean the areas after treatment. Here are more tips for safely handling pesticides indoors.

Watch out for pet treatments. Another common source of indoor pesticide exposure is insecticidal treatments for pets, such as flea or tick medication for dogs and cats. Preventive measures can reduce the need for these treatments: frequent baths, brushing and combing fur, avoiding high-risk pest areas (particularly in regions where ticks are common) and vacuuming often to catch both bugs and their eggs.

If you choose to use an insecticidal treatment, pick the least toxic option. Follow safely instructions, wear gloves and wash your hands immediately. Aim to keep children away from pets for 24 hours after treatment, and encourage your pets to lounge away from popular gathering places, like couches or bedspreads. The treatment can rub off on those surfaces, and then onto your kids. Here are other tips from the EPA on how to protect your pets from fleas and ticks.

Consider your diet. Another source of pesticide exposure is diet, particularly produce. The U.S. Department of Agriculture detected pesticide residues in almost two-thirds of the 3,015 produce samples they tested in 2023. Many of those fruits and vegetables include the popular foods kids eat every day, such as apples, peaches and nectarines.

To reduce pesticide exposure in your family’s diet, choose foods that are USDA-certified organic. EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce lists the conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables that have the highest amount of pesticide residues in tests. If you have limited access to organic food or are restricted by budget, these fruits and vegetables are a great place to start. And always wash produce before eating.


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