FERN Report Examines Long-Term Study on Pesticides’ Impact on Children of Farmworkers

According to a 15-year study, pesticides could be having a profound impact on the health and brain development of the children of farmworkers in the Salinas Valley, known as America’s salad bowl. The study and the current regulatory framework for organophosphates and other pesticides are the subject of the latest story by reporter Susan Freinkel for FERN, “Warning Signs: How Pesticides Harm the Young Brain,” which appears on the cover of The Nation magazine.

The study–called Center for the Health Assessment of Mothers and Children of Salinas, or CHAMACOS–began in 2000 with 601 pregnant women, nearly all of whom had signs of exposure to organophosphate pesticides in their urine, and then tracked the health and development of their children. Over the years, chief investigator Brenda Eskenazi, a professor of maternal and child health and epidemiology at University of California Berkeley, and her team have broadened their investigations to look at the effects of fungicides, fumigants, bisphenol A, and flame retardants.

“As it turns out, these chemicals can pass through the placenta, gaining access to the baby’s bloodstream and, eventually, its delicate, developing brain,” reports Freinkel. “From infancy on, the children of the mothers with the highest levels of organophosphates were at the greatest risk for neurodevelopmental damage.”

Freinkel reports that the average 7-point drop in IQ experienced by children in the study could have a significant impact on the economy, including an increased number of school kids needing special education and fewer workers capable of complex tasks or high-level decision-making.

Her story sheds lights on the unusual relationship between the farmworkers and the researchers: “Even as the researchers have been trying to unravel the tangled effects of pesticides and other chemicals on children’s development, they’ve been devising practical ways to help the study’s participants reduce their risk of exposure—a rare example of community engagement by academic scientists,” Freinkel reports. “In a place that’s often sharply polarized between those who own the fields and those who work in them, CHAMACOS researchers have insisted on involving all sides. They’ve worked with growers and farmworker advocates to explore ways to mitigate exposure and have spun off studies to answer questions and concerns in the local community.”

Examining the regulatory framework for chemicals at the EPA, Freinkel notes that the process for reviewing new or already approved chemicals doesn’t sufficiently take into account the subtle impacts showing up in CHAMACOS and other studies, such as learning deficits or behavioral problems.

“The EPA is not empowered to act quickly when new evidence shows chemicals are more harmful than was understood,” says Kristin Schafer, Policy Director at the Pesticide Action Network, whom Freinkel quotes in the story. “That’s what we’re seeing with organophosphates. There is such a compelling body of evidence, and the EPA is slogging through this long, slow process of evaluating this new science, while these chemicals are being used every day and every season and little kids are being exposed.”

You can read the full report here at The Nation or on our Web site.