Warning Signs: How Pesticides Harm the Young Brain
March 11, 2014 | This article appeared in the March 31, 2014 edition of The Nation.
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Since 1945, the use of pesticides in the United States has quintupled. More than 1 billion pounds of pesticides—a broad term that includes weed killers, insecticides and fungicides—are now used in the United States each year. Over 1,000 chemicals registered to fight pests and pathogens are formulated into some 20,000 products. Most are for agricultural use, but a fifth are designed for nonagricultural applications—in homes and gardens, playgrounds, schools, offices and hospitals.
So it’s no surprise that studies show many of us—even newborns—harboring detectable levels of pesticides in our bodies. Yet it’s hard to know what that really means for our health. Their mere presence in our systems does not, ipso facto, make for a health threat. Scientists have linked heavy chronic exposure to cancer and birth defects. But what about low-dose continuing exposures—for example, the micrograms that a farmworker might carry home each night on the soles of her boots? Or for those of us who don’t work on a farm, the traces that drift from a lawn or golf course, or remain in the dust after a landlord sprays, or that cling to a piece of fruit? (Produce is the main source of exposure for most children in the United States.)
One place where the answers are being worked out is in the Salinas Valley, where for fifteen years researchers have been following several hundred children of primarily Latino farmworkers since birth. The scientists are based at the University of California, Berkeley, but the hub of the study is in the town of Salinas, in a small tan portable bungalow tucked into a parking lot between the county hospital and county jail. The bungalow is busy almost every day, as the children and their mothers visit for periodic interviews and assessments. The waiting room has comfy chairs, toys for all ages and a TV tuned to Spanish-language programs, since most of the participants are originally from Mexico. Everyone loves a snack from the quesadilla maker in the back.
Maria was one of the study’s earliest enrollees: she has been making regular trips here since before Carla was born in 2000.
The study is known as CHAMACOS, which stands for Center for the Health Assessment of Mothers and Children of Salinas. The researchers chose that bulky acronym because it’s Mexican slang for “little kids.” “It really means something to our participants,” says Kimberly Parra, the field-office coordinator who manages the traffic of staff, researchers and families through the bungalow.