Pesticides linked to birth abnormalities in major new study

‘The sheer size of the study, and the meticulous way it has been carried out, suggest that there is an environmental hazard for mothers resident in an area with large scale pesticide usage’

Ian Johnston
Science Correspondent
Tuesday 29 August 2017 15:58 BST
A field is sprayed with pesticide
A field is sprayed with pesticide

High exposure to pesticides as a result of living near farmers’ fields appears to increase the risk of giving birth to a baby with “abnormalities” by about 9 per cent, according to new research.

Researchers from the University of California, Santa Barbara, compared 500,000 birth records for people born in the San Joaquin Valley between 1997 and 2011 and levels of pesticides used in the area.

The average use of pesticides over that period was about 975kg for each 2.6sq km area per year.

But, for pregnant women in areas where 4,000kg of pesticides was used, the chance of giving birth prematurely rose by about 8 per cent and the chance of having a birth abnormality by about 9 per cent.

Writing in the journal Nature Communications, the researchers compared this to the 5 to 10 per cent increase adverse birth outcomes that can result from air pollution or extreme heat events.

“Concerns about the effects of harmful environmental exposure on birth outcomes have existed for decades,” they wrote.

“Great advances have been made in understanding the effects of smoking and air pollution, among others, yet research on the effects of pesticides has remained inconclusive.

“While environmental contaminants generally share the ethical and legal problems of evaluating the health consequences of exposure in a controlled setting and the difficulties associated with rare outcomes, pesticides present an additional challenge.

“Unlike smoking, which is observable, or even air pollution, for which there exists a robust network of monitors, publicly available pesticide use data are lacking for most of the world.”

They said exposure to pesticides varied greatly in the San Joaquin Valley, with more than half of the births in places where there were no pesticides used in the area.

“For most births, there is no statistically identifiable impact of pesticide exposure on birth outcome. Yet, for individuals in the top 5 per cent of exposure, pesticide exposure led to 5 to 9 per cent increases in adverse outcomes,” they said.

“The magnitude of effects was further enlarged for the top 1 per cent, where these extreme exposures (more than 11,000kg over gestation) led to an 11 per cent increased probability of preterm birth, 20 per cent increased probability of low birth weight, and about a 30g decrease in birth weight.

“For birth abnormalities, being in the high versus low pesticide exposure group for cumulative pesticide use over gestation increased the probability of a birth abnormality by about 9 per cent (5.8 per cent of births have a birth abnormality in this sample).”

Levels of pesticide use depended to a large degree on the types of crops being grown.

“Commodities such as grapes receive nearly 50kg 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,” the researchers said.

They were unable to isolate the roles of different chemicals used in the study.

“Doing so is extremely challenging, because many chemicals are used in conjunction or in close spatial or temporal windows,” the paper said.

Commenting on the study, Professor Alastair Hay, an environmental toxicologist at Leeds University, said it had been “very well conducted”.

“This study will be picked over carefully by regulatory agencies, as indeed it should be,” he said.

“The sheer size of the study, and the meticulous way it has been carried out, suggest that there is an environmental hazard for mothers resident in an area with large-scale pesticide usage and that investigation of measures to mitigate exposures to the chemicals are needed.”

He said it was not clear which pesticides had been used, but added that the study was “likely to have wide applicability in view of the type of crops sprayed”.

“And given that the risk is clearly in the area most heavily exposed – which you would expect to see if the problem were real – there are clear messages that mitigation measures are needed,” Professor Hay said.

Dr Christopher Connolly, a neurobiologist at Dundee University, said the study reported “a significant increase in adverse birth effects that relate to high level pesticide use”.

“However, the devil is in the detail, and the detail is missing – which pesticide(s) are responsible for these effects?” he said.

“This makes it important that the study is repeated with a detailed list of the chemicals used at each site and the impact on births correlated to individual pesticide (and cocktail) application.

“In the UK, the average total pesticide load in intensively managed arable fields is about 1.5 times higher than the average reported in this study area, but is 10-fold lower than the high pesticide load reported to correlate with adverse birth effects in this study.

“Again, without the detail on actual pesticide use on a local scale, possible devil(s) remain hidden.”

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