Effects of Prenatal Pesticide Exposure on Infant Health

By Doris Sempasa, AFOP Health & Safety Programs Intern

A recent study of pesticide levels in newborn umbilical cord blood found that infants with higher levels of pesticides tended to weigh less at birth. The study also found that organochlorine pesticides, like DDT, which are no longer used in the U.S., are found at significant levels in the umbilical cord blood of newborn infants, largely because DDT has a long shelf life, is easily stored in fat cells, and is very resistant to metabolism.  This information would seem to suggest that even forgotten pesticides, such as the organochlorine pesticide mentioned above, can end up having drastic effects on children born today.

So why does this matter? This study and others like it are helpful in understanding farmworker health issues; it is particularly important for women in farm work to know that they are uniquely affected by pesticides exposure. The pregnant women whose babies were tested in the study noted above only had moderate exposure to pesticides during pregnancy; therefore this research does not reflect what extreme exposures, like those experienced by farmworkers, could result in.  Additionally, it is important farmworkers know that their exposure not only puts them at risk for possible health problems, but it also puts the health of their unborn child at risk.

Looking at how maternal and child health can be affected by pesticide exposure, it is also useful to consider how issues such as  low birth weight could possibly influence other life outcomes. Concurrently with this research on the effects of pesticides on infant birth weight is a study in the American Economic Review, which showed that low birth weight is not only a predictor of poorer health outcomes in adulthood, but also of future economic earning problems. The combined findings of these studies seem to indicate that infants with lower birth weight are likely to earn lower income throughout their lives. Low birth weight, according to the new study, also increases the probability of suffering from attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD), and it lowers the probability of graduating from high school.

In a previous AFOP blog , we noted that evidence indicated Latino and African American families suffer a disproportionate burden of exposure to hazardous chemicals due to their living and work environments. Those who cannot choose where they live and work because of economic restrictions cannot choose to avoid dangerous pesticides and other pollutants, which threaten their children’s health and, as it turns out, their livelihood.

Many studies have shown that stricter environmental regulation benefits children in particular. In fact, a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology showed a reduction of infant mortality after the passing of the Clean Air Act in 1970, showing that for every one percent reduction of toxic “particulates,” a half percent reduction of infant mortality occurs. The study suggests that 1,300 fewer babies died in 1972 as a result of these stricter policies on air pollution.

This information helps focus more attention on how environmental factors affect human health and it will hopefully encourage more people to join in a dialogue on the ways we as a country can support and protect susceptible populations. Through AFOP’s pesticide education projects HOPE and LEAF, we seek to provide information to  some of the most vulnerable and most affected people, like farmworker women.

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