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Member Research and Reports

Berkeley Study Links Reduced Breathing Capacity in Kids to Early Pesticide Exposure

Taking a deep breath might be a bit harder for children exposed early in life to a widely used class of pesticides in agriculture, according to a new paper by University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health researchers.

A new study has linked the levels of organophosphate pesticide metabolites in the urine of 279 children living in California’s Salinas Valley with decreased lung function. Each tenfold increase in concentrations of organophosphate metabolites was associated with a 159-milliliter decrease in lung function, or about 8 percent less air, on average, when blowing out a candle. The magnitude of this decrease is similar to a child’s secondhand smoke exposure from his or her mother.

The findings, published in the journal Thorax in December, are the first to link chronic, low-level exposures to organophosphate pesticides – chemicals that target the nervous system – to lung health for children.

“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,” said study senior author Dr. Brenda Eskenazi, a professor of epidemiology and maternal and child health at Berkeley. “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.

The researchers collected urine samples five times throughout the children’s lives, from age 6 months to 5 years, and measured the levels of organophosphate pesticide metabolites each time. When the children were 7 years old, they were given a spirometry test to measure the amount of air they could exhale.

The study accounted for other factors that could affect the results, such as whether the mothers smoked, air pollution, presence of mold or pets in the home and proximity to highways.

“The kids in our study with higher pesticide exposure had lower breathing capacity,” said study lead author Dr. Rachel Raanan, who conducted the research while she was a postdoctoral scholar in Dr. Eskenazi’s lab. “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).”

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