This is Your Brain on Pesticides

Last year, several studies linked pesticide exposure in pregnant women to lower IQs in their children, which we wrote about in our blog post, “Farmworkers Suffer a Disproportionate Burden.” A new study published this May went a step further: researchers conducted brain scans to see if there were any brain abnormalities in children who had been exposed to the insecticide chlorpyrifos in the womb. The study concludes that exposure may cause physical changes in brain areas responsible for language learning, attention span, social interaction, and self-control.

Although the children in this study live in New York City, the findings have bigger implications for farmworkers and others who live in rural areas. Chlorpyrifos was commonly used in homes to kill roaches and other insects until the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned it for indoor use in 2001. But chlorpyrifos is still the most commonly used insecticide in U.S. agriculture. A study of farmworker children in North Carolina found 50 out of 60 youths tested positive for chlorpyrifos exposure.

The subjects in the study conducted in New York City, were exposed at levels below the U.S. established thresholds for acute exposure, showing that even moderate or low level exposure can have serious health consequences. This new study could imply that current standards for exposure limits are perhaps not strict enough to protect developing children. It’s worth mentioning that all of the children in the New York City study were black and/or Latino, while all of the farmworker children in the North Carolina study were Latino. In the U.S., immigrants and people of color, whether in urban or rural contexts, bear a disproportionate burden of the health risks that come from toxic exposures. As mentioned in another previous blog post, two-thirds of Latino families live in areas that do not meet the federal government’s air quality standards.

The consequences of pesticide exposure in developing children will likely have long term consequences as the exposed children grow older and attend school. It is still unclear if the brain changes will persist after puberty. More follow up will be necessary with the test subjects to see if the consequences will last into adulthood.

Mitigating the dangers of pesticides for farmworker families is the main goal of Project LEAF (Limiting Exposure Around Families), AFOP’s Health & Safety Programs take home exposure training. Through the training, farmworkers learn methods of how to avoid exposing their families to dangerous pesticides, such as washing their work clothes separately from their families’, not hugging their children after work until they’ve bathed with soap and water, and by keeping pesticide containers away from their families. For more information about Project LEAF, please contact Levy Schroeder at

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