Organic: Important for the welfare of farmworker health

Organic food and farming have many health benefits for consumers—they have lower levels and frequencies of pesticide residues, and can have higher levels of antioxidants and heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. However, another less well-known health benefit centers on the welfare of farmworkers and families in agricultural areas.

Synthetic pesticides used on conventional farms are often present in the homes of nearby families and children. These pesticides may drift from the fields, or be carried in on clothing and boots of farmworkers. Over the past decade, dozens of studies have shown associations between exposures to agricultural pesticides and serious health concerns. For example, recent research has shown that pesticide exposure can harm reproductive health, is linked with respiratory illness in children, rheumatoid arthritis, coronary heart disease, renal disease, and Parkinson’s disease, and contributes to thyroid, prostate, colorectal, lung and breast cancer.

Children in agricultural communities are at particular risk for pesticide exposure at a time in their lives when they are most vulnerable to harmful chemicals.

On average, children have higher exposures to environmental chemicals than adults because they eat, drink, and breathe more than adults on a per-bodyweight basis. They also spend time near the floor where house dust may be contaminated with pesticides.  Children explore their environments with their hands and mouths, increasing exposures even more. They also have undeveloped metabolic pathways and thus often have a reduced ability to metabolize toxins such as pesticides into non-toxic water-soluble forms that can be excreted as urine.

Finally, they are developmentally immature. As we grow, we develop a network that makes up our individual neural architecture. If a child is exposed to a neurotoxic chemical during this process, it can permanently alter the structure of that architecture.

Results from studies examining the impact of pesticide exposure on children’s health have been especially concerning, showing that pre-natal and childhood exposure to pesticides may be linked to such conditions as the development of obesity and metabolic disorders, developmental problems, poorer neurodevelopment, and decreased IQ.

One of the most important studies looking at the impacts of exposure to pollutants on children’s health is a long-term study conducted by the Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health (CERCH). CERCH is a world-renowned research center at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health that leads The Center for the Health Assessment of Mothers and Children of Salinas (CHAMACOS) Study—the longest running longitudinal birth cohort study of pesticides and other environmental exposures among children in a farmworker community. CHAMACOS means “little children” in Mexican Spanish, reflecting the population engaged in the study.

This community-university partnership began in 1999 when pregnant women in California’s Salinas Valley enrolled in the study. Over the past 17 years, it has tested families for exposures to pesticides and other chemicals while assessing the children’s growth, health, and development. The study was expanded around 2010 to include 300 additional 9-year-olds, and currently has over 600 children participating.

The CHAMACOS Study has resulted in almost 150 publications, with some truly groundbreaking results. For example, the research has found that maternal exposure to organophosphate pesticides during pregnancy is associated with earlier labor, poorer neonatal reflexes, and developmental disorders and increased risk of attention problems in children. It has also shown a link between organophosphate exposure and lower IQ at school age.  Unfortunately, children growing up in stressful environments are even more likely to experience negative impacts on mental function from prenatal organophosphate exposure.

CHAMACOS studies of other chemical exposures such as to organochlorine pesticides and flame retardants also reported poorer mental development in children, altered thyroid hormone levels in mothers, neonatal thyroid hormone levels, decreased female fertility, lower infant birth weights, and poorer attention, fine motor skills and cognition.

Because organic certified farming operations are prohibited from using most synthetic pesticides, organic farms ensure that farmworkers, their families and their communities are safer from the adverse effects of toxic pesticide exposure. The benefits of organic farming associated with farmer and farmworker health have been characterized as “one of the most important advantages of organic management for farmworkers” by a recent review of the impacts of organic food and farming on environmental and human health published in the journal Science Advances.

When you grow and purchase organic food, you’re not just making a decision that will help decrease health risks for your own family, you are also contributing to a solution that protects the welfare of millions of people living  in rural areas.  //

Dr. Jessica Shade is Director of Science Programs at The Organic Center