New research has found a widely used class of pesticides in agriculture has similar effects on children who are exposed to secondhand smoke, even after researchers accounted for other factors, such as air pollution, mold, pets, smoking status of the mothers, and lung health.
The study was conducted over seven years with 279 children from families in California agricultural communities. The study, which was published in the journal Thorax, links levels of organophosphate pesticide metabolites in the urine of the children with decreased lung function.
Researchers found an 8 percent reduction in lung function on average when blowing out, making it harder for them to breathe and exercise. This is the first time children who are one step removed from pesticides have been studied. Previous studies have only examined the effects on adults who were spraying the chemicals or had worked in fields where the pesticides were used.
Watch A Watchful Eye on Farm Families’ Health, from Mark Bittman: California Matters:
Senior author of the study Brenda Eskenazi, a professor of epidemiology and of maternal and child health, said: “Researchers have described breathing problems in agricultural workers who are exposed to these pesticides, but these new findings are about children who live in an agricultural area where the organophosphates are being used.”
‘This is the first evidence suggesting that children exposed to organophosphates have poorer lung function.’
The children 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, according to a statement from Berkeley News.
Researchers had collected five urine samples from when the children were aged 6 months to 5 years. Each sample was measured for levels of organophosphate pesticide metabolites each time. Once the children reach 7 years old, they were given a spirometry, which measures the amount of air they could exhale.
‘The kids in our study with higher pesticide exposure had lower breathing capacity,’
said study lead author Rachel Raanan. “If the reduced lung function persists into adulthood, it could leave our participants at greater risk of developing respiratory problems like COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).”
The study, however, did not examine how they were being exposed to the pesticides. Although the researchers do mention that people working with pesticides should remove their work clothes and shoes before entering their homes.
“Remember, these kids aren’t farm workers,” Eskenazi told Time. “We know that this population is somewhat more exposed than the general U.S. population, but what we’re seeing from children in these areas may also have implications for residue in food.”
It was also suggested that if nearby fields are being sprayed, children should be kept away, and if indoors, windows should be closed. Exposure to pesticides can also be limited by washing fruits and vegetables carefully before eating.
“This study adds exposure to organophosphate pesticides to the growing list of environmental exposures — including air pollution, indoor cook stove smoke, and environmental tobacco smoke — that could be harmful to the developing lungs of children,” said Raanan.
‘Given they are still used worldwide, we believe our findings deserve further attention.’
The authors did note that even though organophosphate pesticides are still widely used, most residential uses of organophosphate pesticides in the United States had been phased out in the mid-2000s. In California, use had also declined significantly from 6.4 million pounds in 2000 when the study began, to 3.5 million pounds in 2013, the year with the most recent pesticide use data.
“Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is an increasing cause of death around the world,” said study co-author and pulmonary specialist Dr. John Balmes, a UC Berkeley professor of environmental health sciences with a joint appointment at the UC San Francisco School of Medicine.
“Since we know that reduced lung function increases the risk for COPD, it is important to identify and reduce environmental exposures during childhood that impair breathing capacity.”
According to Time, Eskenazi praised farmers’ willingness to move away from organophosphates, at least in California, but acknowledged that there is still much to learn about the replacements. “I can’t really say what the health effects of those things are,” she says. “That’s the next thing for us to study.”