Children of migrant and seasonal farm workers are exposed to a wide range of agricultural and home pesticides, according to a study just published in the on-line edition of Environmental Health Perspectives, Journal of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS).
The research team, from Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center, the Southwest Research Institute, and NIEHS, found pesticide residues on floors, toys and hands of children who lived in farm worker households in four mountain counties in North Carolina and two in Virginia. The team looked only at households with children under 7.
“Pesticides pose a greater health risk for children, because of their small body size and rapid development,” said Sara A. Quandt, Ph.D., professor of public health sciences -- epidemiology and lead author.
“People have always said that no one has ever demonstrated that workers in North Carolina and Virginia are exposed to pesticides," she said. "Now we have."
Quandt said the team targeted eight agricultural chemicals and 13 pesticides commonly found in homes in the United States. They wiped toys to detect chemicals there, and used similar methods on children’s hands and on the portions of the floor where they were likely to play. They sent the wipes to the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, for analysis.
Laboratory results showed residues of six agricultural chemicals and 11 residential pesticides. Quandt noted that others had found that pesticide residues can remain on surfaces indoors for long periods of time, “creating a significant exposure for children, especially those young enough to play on floors or to place toys and household objects in the mouth.”
Adults in these farm worker households often apply chemicals and perform hand labor in fields treated with pesticides.
“As the first study to screen for a large number of both agricultural and residential pesticides in farm worker dwellings, this extends previous research on the exposure of this population,” Quandt said.
All the workers in the 41 tested households spoke Spanish. The researchers found pesticides in 95 percent of all homes sampled.
The team had expected to find organophosphates, the one class of pesticide found in previous studies by others..
“Our findings indicate that all categories of pesticides examined, not just organophosphates, are present in farm worker homes with young children in residence,” said Quandt.
She said the team found the agricultural chemicals mostly in those homes that were adjacent to the agricultural fields. The workers most likely tracked the chemicals on their shoes, or had it on their clothing. But they found fewer detectable agricultural pesticides than residential pesticides.
The team also found that the quality of the housing predicted the level of home pesticides. “Houses that are harder to clean may provide better habitats for pests, resulting in greater use of pesticides, as well as prevent the removal of pesticide-containing dust,” she said.
The team had expected to find the agricultural pesticides. “These results indicate that residential pesticide use and exposure merit further study.”
Besides Quandt, the Wake Forest researchers included Thomas A. Arcury, Ph.D., David S. Jackson, M.D., Pamela Rao, Ph.D., and Alicia M. Doran, B.A., from the Department of Family and Community Medicine, and Beverly M. Snively, Ph.D., of Public Health Sciences. The team also included David E. Camann, M.S., and Alice Y. Yau, M.S., from Southwest and Jane A. Hoppin, Ph.D. from NIEHS. The project was paid for with a grant from NIEHS.
Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center is an academic health center including Wake Forest University School of Medicine and North Carolina Baptist Hospital.
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