Pesticides can have a profound impact on children even before they’re born. A first-of-its-kind study presented at the European Respiratory Society International Congress late last week found that babies exposed to higher levels of organochlorine compounds in the womb go on to have worse lung function in childhood.
Previous research indicated links between exposure to chemicals such as the pesticide DDT, electrical insulators and other industrial products in the womb and parents reporting respiratory diseases such as wheezing, asthma and chest infections. This new study from the European Lung Association is the first to show a link with lung strength and capacity in relations to the exposure of these low-level chemicals.
“Babies and children are the most susceptible population since their organs are still under development, and damage to the lungs at birth can have a huge impact in later life,” said Professor Mina Gaga, who is President of the European Respiratory Society and Medical Director and Head of the Respiratory Department of Athens Chest Hospital, Greece. “A clear link has been demonstrated between low lung function in early adulthood and respiratory, cardiovascular and metabolic issues in later life, and ultimately premature death.”
While many of these chemicals have been banned in most parts of the world, they degrade very slowly and are still present in the environment and foods.
“We already have evidence that exposure to environmental chemicals including organochlorine compounds can have an impact on children’s health,” said Dr Maribel Casas, assistant research professor at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health, a centre supported by the “la Caixa” Foundation, Spain. “Even though this group of chemicals were banned in the 1970s, low but detectable levels are still present in pregnant women and in children. That means current populations and future generations are still exposed to these compounds.”
The organochlorine compounds are believed to interfere with the hormone system and have been connected to cardiovascular disorders, cancers and low birth weight babies. The babies in the womb are exposed to these via the placenta and breastfeeding.
“We know that this group of chemicals can interfere with the body’s hormone system and we also know that hormone receptors play an important role in foetal development of the lungs, so this could be the mechanism for a link,” Dr. Casas said.
The study followed 1,308 babies born in Spain between 2004 and 2008. Umbilical cord blood was used to measure the amount of seven different organochlorine compounds in the pregnant mother’s blood. At 4 and 7-years-of-age the children were asked to take part in tests that measured their lung function.
Trained nurses and paediatic pulmonologists measured the children’s lung volume and checked for any obstruction of the airways.
Researchers found that levels of DDE (a chemical formed when DDT is broken down), was linked with inferior lung function in children at both ages.
In particular, exposure to maternal concentrations of DDE between 0.23 and 0.50 nanograms per millilitre was connected with a 50-millilitre reduction in how much air children could blow out in one second. The average (median) level of DDE found in children involved in the study was 0.28 nanograms per milliliter.
Even though the effect on the children’s lungs is small, the researchers stated that this study is important and relevant in determining the overall health of all children through controlling harmful substances.
“…These smaller changes are highly relevant at population level and can be important in children with respiratory conditions,” Dr. Casas said.
The researchers say pregnant women should avoid eating food that possibly contains organochlorine compounds, including fattier meats and oily fish. Eating food that’s certified organic can be another way to avoid this since organic foods have to meet stringent requirements to be certified, which includes land and soil requirements for growing crops.
As a next step, researchers will look to study older children and teens to see if the lung problems continue to persist.
In the United States, a similar study that looked at implications of agricultural pesticide use on farmers and their children, which has been running for almost two decades, has been threatened by the Environmental Protection Agency. Read more about that here.
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