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Shoes often a vehicle for tracking pesticides into house

Tuesday, June 22, 1999

By Michael Woods, Post-Gazette Washington Bureau

Common-sense rules for keeping a healthy household, handed down from one generation to another, often turn out to have a sound scientific basis. Wash hands before eating, cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing. Keep food-preparation areas clean. Followed consistently, such simple habits can help prevent a lot of illnesses.

Summer's debut is a good time to consider another home sanitary rule, still time-honored in some countries, it has fallen by the wayside in the United States: Take off your shoes at the door.

If that's not standard practice, at the least, place a door mat or rug at each entrance, and encourage all family members to wipe their feet thoroughly before entering.

Older readers are probably groaning right now. Those words may bring back childhood memories of finger-wagging scoldings from mom or grandma for breaking what once was an iron-clad rule in some households.

In Japan, parts of Russia, and other countries, it's still customary to take off shoes before entering a house.

The custom originated mainly to keep people from tracking dirt inside the house. But the rationale has changed dramatically, and the rule has become especially important for families with small children.

A new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency study shows that people also track in weed killers and other pesticides commonly applied to lawns during the spring and summer. The study, conducted by the Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio, is among a series being funded by the EPA to assess how small children are exposed to pesticides around the home.

Scientists long suspected that the "track-in" route was a major way in which adults and children came into contact with pesticides. Although more research is needed, scientists think that "track-in" exposures may exceed those from the best-known source -- pesticide residues on fresh fruits and vegetables.

The study, reported in May in Environmental Science & Technology, a publication of the American Chemical Society, provided the first proof that pesticides can be tracked into residences. People and pets who walk on pesticide-treated lawns can pick up pesticides like the herbicide 2,4-D, for up to a week after application, the study showed.

Pesticides cling to shoes, and then are rubbed off on carpeting inside the home. Does it pose a health threat? The study did not tackle that question. But EPA's Dr. Robert G. Lewis, who managed the study, said the potential does exist. Exposure to 2,4-D can cause immediate and relatively minor problems like skin rashes and gastrointestinal upsets. Long-term health effects of the herbicide are unknown, the EPA said.

Families with small children, in particular, should be aware of the track-in problem, Lewis said. Young children almost live on the floor as they crawl, learn to take those first steps, and pass through the toddler stage. Their mouths, noses and eyes are in direct contact with the floor. Hands touch the floor and then go right into the mouth. Objects from the floor go into their mouths. Carpeted floors also are a favorite spot for older children to watch television and read.

The study found that a rug or carpet in the entryway collects pesticide from shoes, and limits the amount that accumulates elsewhere in the house. Homes with carpeted entryways had lower levels of pesticide elsewhere in the house. In homes with bare-floor entryways, the highest levels of herbicide accumulated in carpeted living rooms and bedrooms.

Researchers recommended that homeowners take off their shoes at the door, or place a rug or carpet in the entryway, to limit pesticide track-in. Pet dogs and cats also can carry pesticides into the homes, they said, adding that young children often have close contact with family pets.

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