Study Shows Birth Ab­nor­mal­i­ties Go Up Sig­nif­i­cantly with High Pes­ti­cide Use

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A new re­search study has fi­nally borne out some­thing many had feared, that in­creased pes­ti­cide use could cause in­creases in birth de­fects.

The study, pub­lished in the jour­nal Na­ture Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, was con­ducted by re­searchers at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Santa Bar­bara. They found that, for preg­nant women ex­posed to around 4,000 kg of pes­ti­cides dur­ing the birth cy­cle, two harm­ful re­sults oc­curred. Pre­ma­ture births went up by ap­prox­i­mately 8 per­cent, and the chance of a birth ab­nor­mal­ity oc­cur­ring went up by 9 per­cent.

The study was con­ducted by an­a­lyz­ing birth records for 500,000 peo­ple born in Cal­i­for­nia’s San Joaquin Val­ley be­tween 1997 and 2011, then com­par­ing re­sults against data on the amount of pes­ti­cides used in the re­gion each year.

The av­er­age pes­ti­cide use over the en­tire study pe­riod was about 975 kg per 2.6 square kilo­me­ter area.

The in­tent of the study was to get a han­dle on the im­pact of pes­ti­cide ex­po­sure on birth is­sues. It has been sus­pected for some time, with com­par­isons made to the im­pact of other en­vi­ron­men­tal fac­tors such as smok­ing or air pol­lu­tion. For those there is rich data­base of in­for­ma­tion about the pre­cise amount of ma­te­rial peo­ple might have been ex­posed to over a given re­gion. For pes­ti­cides, it is far more dif­fi­cult to es­ti­mate.

As the re­searchers noted in their study, de­spite the lack of ex­act data, they felt the es­ti­mate ex­po­sure lev­els were still enough to tell a com­plete story. As they stated, “For in­di­vid­u­als in the top 5 per cent of ex­po­sure, pes­ti­cide ex­po­sure led to 5 to 9 per cent in­creases in ad­verse out­comes.” For the “top 1 per­cent” of ex­po­sure lev­els, with more than 11,000 kg ab­sorbed dur­ing preg­nancy, “th­ese ex­treme ex­po­sures…led to an 11 per­cent in­creased prob­a­bil­ity of preterm birth, 20 per­cent in­creased prob­a­bil­ity of low birth weight, and about a 30 g de­crease in birth weight.”

The amount of pes­ti­cide res­i­dents of the Val­ley were ex­posed to was very much con­nected with where they lived and what crops were nearby. The re­searchers said that “Com­modi­ties such as grapes re­ceive nearly 50 kg per hectare per year of in­sec­ti­cides alone in the San Joaquin Val­ley re­gion, while other high value crops such as pis­ta­chios re­ceive barely one third of that amount.”

As ob­served by many in­dus­try ex­perts work­ing in the same fields, the im­pli­ca­tions of the study are quite clear. In or­der to min­i­mize pre­ma­ture births and birth de­fects, pes­ti­cide use must be mon­i­tored more care­fully and kept to lower lev­els.

The chal­lenge for the re­searchers now is to get a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of which pes­ti­cides are the most harm­ful, and which of them cre­ates what types of prob­lems. With the clar­ion call that this ini­tial study has raised, it is likely the re­searchers will get ad­di­tional fund­ing sup­port to con­tinue the work, and to get ac­cess to spe­cific pes­ti­cide ap­pli­ca­tion lev­els and types in each af­fected agri­cul­tural re­gion.

Photo by Robert W,

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