Spotlight risk


Exposure to pesticides puts children at risk

The Problem

The global use of pesticides destroys ecosystems and threatens children’s health. Pesticides are deadly chemicals found in places where children live, learn and play. They are unavoidable contaminants of air, water, soil and food that children consume. While all pesticides are made to kill their targets, highly hazardous pesticides carry an increased risk of acute or chronic harm to human health and the environment.

In 2020, 2.7 million tonnes of active pesticide ingredients were used worldwide. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), from 2000-2020, total global pesticide use increased by 30 per cent. The World Bank Data Group estimates that 85 per cent of the pesticides used globally are for agricultural purposes.

Increased crop yields associated with pesticide use have not ended world hunger or put the world on track to achieve Sustainable Development Indicators of nutritional status by 2030. Pesticides also directly threaten global food security by damaging ecosystems and soil, and killing fish, wildlife and pollinators necessary for the global food supply

Other major pesticide uses include disease vector control, which while important for public health, can cause potential harm to the environment and children. Pesticides are also used in households and other community locations. Climate change will likely increase the use of pesticides. 

Inconsistent and inadequate research and risk assessment on pesticide toxicity globally has led to fragmented and often ineffective regulation of pesticide production, use and disposal, putting children at increased risk of exposure.



Nearly 90% of the global burden of disease associated with climate change is borne by children under 5.

Climate change will likely increase the use of pesticides


Children are uniquely vulnerable to pesticides in food, water and air. Because children are growing, they take in more food, water and air for their body weight than adults. Children have immature pesticide detoxification systems and their developing organs, including their brains, can be harmed by pesticides. Children also have a longer life expectancy in which to experience negative health effects from pesticides.

Exposure to pesticides begins before children are conceived. Prenatal exposures can also pose health risks to children. Children in all countries and in both rural and agricultural settings are at risk from pesticides. Lack of regulation, personal protective equipment, and access to poison centres in low- and middle-income countries  put children at higher risk of pesticide exposure. Children of farmworkers are at risk of ‘take-home’ exposures.

Child labour in agriculture, where children are exposed to direct spraying and pesticide drift, also puts children at heightened risk of pesticide exposure. In 2020, an estimated 112 million children globally in both developed and developing countries worked in agriculture.

Pesticide exposures in children are associated with many significant negative health effects. Exposures to pesticides can be high-dose and potentially deadly. More commonly, children have low-dose chronic exposures that can be linked to multi-system effects, including impaired neurodevelopment and certain cancers such as leukemia and neuroblastoma.

Acute pesticide poisonings can be accidental or intentional. Globally, approximately 385 million cases of unintentional acute pesticide poisonings occur in the general population each year. While there is no current global paediatric database on unintentional acute pesticide poisonings, an evaluation of WHO mortality data indicated that almost 17 per cent of deaths due to unintentional acute pesticide poisonings occurred in children. Intentional pesticide self-poisoning is also a significant global public health problem.

What you can do

States should work to ensure that they have child-centred policies for pesticide-related legislation.

States should systematically analyse externalities of the cost of pesticides to children’s health and the environment and create economic incentives for the use of the lowest-risk pesticides.

States should include integrated vector management in national and regional vector control strategic plans

States should establish National Poison Centres

That will assist the public, as well as health care professionals, to prevent, diagnose and manage pesticide exposure.

The agricultural industry

Should use integrated pest management. It should also ensure safety of all agricultural workers who use and work around pesticides, educate workers on pesticide risks and provide access to and enforce use of personal protective equipment.

Non-agricultural businesses

Should also use integrated pest management.

Medical institutions and other organizations

Should increase training for all levels of health care professionals on the prevention, diagnosis and management of both acute and chronic pesticide exposures and poisoning.

Academic institutions

Should do interdisciplinary research that systematically evaluates the risk of pesticides to children's health and the environment.

Families, childcare centres and schools

Should use the least toxic pesticide measures, including integrated pesticide management. Parents who work around pesticides should try to minimize take-home exposures.

Urgent and coordinated international action is needed to reduce the use of pesticides globally and minimize children’s pesticide exposures. Pesticide regulation should follow a precautionary approach that is protective of children. A global environmental governance framework is in place that includes many direct and indirect legally binding and non-legally binding mechanisms for pesticide management. While this framework has been successful for minimizing some pesticide exposures for children, much more action is needed across all sectors to protect children’s health.