Posted on May 23, 2017, 6 a.m.
Research study reveals that a peak pesticide spraying season alters short-term neurological behaviors in children.
Researchers from the University of California in San Diego and the University of Minnesota have discovered a link between neurological behaviors in Ecuadorian children and pesticide use during flower growing seasons. Their findings were published in the medical journal NeuroToxicology in May of 2017. Dr. Jose R. Suarez-Lopez Ph.D., an assistant professor at the University of San Diego in the Department of Family Medicine and Public Health, served as first author of the study.
Testing of Children in Agricultural Areas
Ecuador produces a large portion of the world’s cut flowers. The industry relies on pesticides to ensure successful harvests. Previous research using animals as test subjects suggested a link between temporary neurological disorders and pesticide exposure.
The research team tested 308 Ecuadorian children between the ages of 4 and 9 years of age who live near, but do not work in, flower producing areas. Behavioral and blood tests were conducted before peak production for the Mother’s Day holiday, and within 100 days after harvest.
Results show that children tested shortly after the harvest ended displayed lower attention spans, less self-control, inferior hand-eye coordination, and problems perceiving and interacting with visual stimuli when compared to children tested later.
The authors of the study conclude that exposure to pesticides causes a short-term decline in neurological functions. According to Dr. Suarez-Lopez, this is of concern due to timing. The growing season corresponds with end-of-term testing in schools. Children suffering from temporary impairment due to pesticide exposure may receive lower scores on important academic exams. These lower scores may then affect their ability to qualify for certain opportunities in higher education or the job market.
The Effects of Agricultural Poisons
Newborns who are exposed to agricultural chemicals are known to have higher risks of certain neurological conditions, such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and abnormalities in reflex, psychomotor, and mental function development. The effects are more prevalent in boys than girls. The short-term disorders detailed in the published study are in addition to these known, long-term effects.
The chemicals in question contain a substance called organophosphate, which is used to destroy pests on flowers before export. In the human body, organophosphates inhibit the actions of the enzyme acetylcholinesterase (AChE). AChE regulates acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that allows nerves in the body and brain cells to communicate. Organophosphates are also known to destroy neurons and supporting brain cells. Low Ache levels are associated with impulsive behaviors and low attention spans and scores on memory tests.
The ESPINA Study and Future Research
The ESPINA study is an on-going study that examines the effects of agricultural toxins on children in Ecuador. The study published by Dr. Suarez-Lopez’s team is part of this larger effort to understand how environmental pollutants affect the long-term development and welfare of young people growing up in agricultural areas.
Researchers believe their findings prove that exposure to certain pesticides alters cognition, and the ability to learn and interact socially in children. Dr. Suarez-Lopez suggests that a better understanding can be achieved by repeating the tests with a larger sample group. In addition to conducting blood and behavioral tests before and after harvests, an additional test would be conducted during the harvest period, when exposure to agricultural pesticides peaks.
Jose R. Suarez-Lopez, Harvey Checkoway, David R. Jacobs, Wael K. Al-Delaimy, Sheila Gahagan. Potential short-term neurobehavioral alterations in children associated with a peak pesticide spray season: The Mother’s Day flower harvest in Ecuador. NeuroToxicology, 2017; DOI: 10.1016/j.neuro.2017.02.002