As per a new paper by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, taking a deep breath might be a bit harder for children exposed to a widely used class of pesticides in agriculture early in life. The findings of the research paper were published recently in the journal Thorax and are the first to link chronic, low-level exposures to organophosphate pesticides—chemicals that target the nervous system to lung health for children.
The study has established a connection between the levels of organophosphate pesticide metabolites in the urine of 279 children living in California’s Salinas Valley with decreased lung function. Each tenfold increase in concentrations of organophosphate metabolites translated into a 159-milliliter decrease in lung function, or about 8 percent less air, on average, when blowing out a candle. The finding has serious implications as the magnitude of this decrease is akin to a child’s secondhand smoke exposure from his or her mother.
Brenda Eskenazi, a professor of epidemiology, maternal and child health and a senior author of the study remarked that breathing problems in agriculture workers who are exposed to these pesticides were known, but these new findings are about children who live in an agricultural area where the organophosphates are being used. She added that this study is the first of its kind to suggest that children exposed to organophosphates have poorer lung function.
The children in this study were part of the Center for the Health Assessment of Mothers and Children of Salinas (CHAMACOS), a longitudinal study in which the researchers follow children from the time they are in the womb up to adolescence. As a part of the study urine samples were collected five times throughout the children’s lives, from age 6 months to 5 years, and the levels of organophosphate pesticide metabolites were measured each time. When the children reached 7 years of age, they were given a spirometry test in order to measure the amount of air they could exhale. Other factors that could affect the results were also taken into account – like if mothers smoked, air pollution, presence of mold or pets in the home and proximity to highways.
Rachel Raanan, lead author of the study remarked that the kids in the study with higher pesticide exposure had lower breathing capacity. If the reduced lung function followed them into adulthood, it could leave them at greater risk of developing respiratory problems like COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).
The pathways for the children’s exposure to pesticides were not examined in the study. However, it was recommended that the farmworkers remove their work clothes and shoes before entering their homes, children be kept away when pesticides is sprayed in nearby fields. Washing fruits and vegetables thoroughly before eating could also be helpful.
Raanan opined that exposure to organophosphate pesticides adds to the growing list of environmental exposures like air pollution, environmental tobacco smoke, etc., each of which is harmful to the developing lungs of children. Since, the use of pesticides is rampant the findings of the study do deserve serious attention. No doubt there are steps taken by health agencies in the U.S. to reduce the use of such pesticides, still more need to be done.
Dr. John Balmes, a UC Berkeley professor of environmental health sciences with a joint appointment at the UC San Francisco School of Medicine, study’s co-author and a pulmonary specialist opined that chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is an increasing cause of death around the world. That is the reason it is important to reduce environmental exposures during childhood that impair breathing capacity and increase the increase the risk for COPD.