Childhood exposure to pesticides linked to lung disease

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The city of Salinas in California's Central Valley is known as the 'salad bowl' of the world and advertises itself as a great place to live, work, and visit.

But for the children of local farm workers, it may not be the best place to grow up, given their long-term exposure to pesticides, according to a first-of-its kind study published in the journal Thorax.

Researchers tracked the lung function of 279 children living close to farm fields in Salinas, from birth to the age of seven. They found that for every 10-fold increase in exposure to organophosphates, the children had a corresponding 8 percent decrease in lung function.

Organophosphates are a key ingredient in widely used pesticides and exposure can come through the air, when farmworkers track the chemicals home on their clothes and shoes, and from residues in vegetables and fruits that are not washed properly.

"It's comparable to inhaling second-hand smoke," said John Balmes, a pulmonary specialist and co-author of the study. "The kids we studied weren't sick from it, but because they have reduced growth of lung function at age 7, it will make them vulnerable to developing lung diseases as adults from other exposures."

Balmes, who works at the University of California, San Francisco, and the University of California, Berkeley, said the children have an increased risk for developing such lung diseases as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which can be caused by air pollution, smoking, and infection. Lower lung capacity can also make it harder for them to run or play sports.

RELATED: Today's Pesticides Mean Trouble for Tomorrow's Children

The children's urine was tested five times over several years and a lung function test was performed when they reached seven years of age.

Balmes said further study is needed to determine whether it's only children living on or close to farm fields that are affected, or whether the pesticides impact people living within a certain radius of those fields.

"The children were primarily born of mothers who were from Mexico, had less than a high school education, and lived in families with income at or below the federal poverty level," said lead researcher Rachel Raanan of the Center for Environmental Research and Children's Health at UC Berkeley.

She said that a previous study linked early exposure to pesticides to childhood asthma.

So what can be done to improve conditions for children living on or near farms? "We recommend that farmworkers remove their work clothes and shoes before entering their homes," Raanan said. "We also suggested that when nearby fields are being sprayed with pesticides, children be kept away and, if indoors, windows should be closed."

Thoroughly washing fruits and vegetables will also help.

"I'd like to see lot less use of organophosphates," Balmes said. "We need to move away from using toxic pesticides."

He also said that the parents of children exposed to pesticides should also avoid exposing them to tobacco.

"Don't smoke around kids, period, but especially these kids with reduced lung function," he advised.

Check out this effort to reduce pesticides:

New Way To Fight Pests Without Pesticides Is A Gamechanger

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