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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

Columbia: Time for a Closer Look at Pyrethroid Insecticides

In an invited commentary in JAMA, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health professors Drs. Steven Stellman and Jeanne M. Stellman offer their perspective on results from a recent study on Pyrethroid, among the most widely used insecticides for public health control of vector-borne illnesses, including West Nile virus. While exposure to the insecticides, which are also widely used in consumer products, generally poses low health risks to humans, a recent study reported a 50 percent increase in total mortality and three-fold increase in heart disease deaths in persons with high urinary levels of 3-PBA, a metabolic product of pyrethroids indicative of human exposure.

Pyrethroid pesticides are the second most-used insecticides in the world, totaling billions of dollars in U.S. sales.

According to Dr. Steven Stellman, professor of epidemiology, and Jeanne Stellman, professor of health policy & management, this unexpected finding of increased risk of death was unexpected and merits urgent follow-up.

Unlike pesticides, such as DDT, which can persist in tissue for decades, biomarker 3-PBA has a short half-life, as low as 5.7 hours. Prevalence of detectable levels of pyrethroid metabolite in a large, geographically diverse population suggests chronic exposure, note the Stellmans.

The Stellmans also say caution is needed in interpreting the original paper’s data.

Further detailed studies based on validated exposure assessment methods are needed to assess these toxicological parameters. Pyrethroid pesticides are ubiquitous, and exposure is unavoidable; in New York City and elsewhere, aerial spraying for mosquito control to prevent West Nile and other vector-borne illnesses is largely based on pyrethroids. This study challenges the assumption that such exposures are safe.

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