Exploring Links Between Pesticides and Early Childhood Development

Published on
July 13, 2013

Studies suggest that about 12% of children in the United States are affected by neurodevelopmental disorders such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorders (ASD), and learning delays. And it is well known that low-income populations are at a heightened risk for developmental delays and other adverse cognitive outcomes as well as asthma, cancer, obesity, and heart disease.

Researchers are growing increasingly aware that the prenatal period and early childhood are exquisitely sensitive to external insults such as environmental contaminants. And a converging body of literature suggests that prenatal exposures to environmental chemicals could be triggering a cascade of developmental effects in children, including lower IQ, attention problems, and cognitive and behavioral effects.

Society has seen several examples of the detrimental effects of neurotoxins to which humans have been universally exposed, including lead, mercury, and second-hand smoke. Now, numerous studies suggest that high levels of exposure to certain classes of residential and agricultural pesticides can leave lasting effects on brain development. With my 2013 National Health Journalism Fellowship, I’ll investigate the potential neurodevelopmental effects of pesticides on pregnant women and their offspring in underserved populations.

Although certain pesticides of concern have been phased out for indoor use, these same chemicals are still widely used in agricultural settings such as the Central Valley of California, where much of the produce we enjoy year-round throughout the US is grown. Migrant farm workers who spend long days in the fields harvesting and packaging these foods are often exposed directly to pesticides. In many cases, the families and their young children live adjacent to the agricultural fields in community housing, close to where pesticides are applied. After visiting this region, seeing the labor first-hand, and meeting some of the families, I don’t look at the strawberries, lettuce, and other produce I pick up in the supermarket in quite the same way. The decisions I make about which products to buy affect not only my children’s health, but also the health of these farm workers and their children.

Since the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring 50 years ago, society has made great strides in reducing exposures to environmental chemicals including lead and pesticides. Yet researchers argue that much more could be done, noting that the factors that are putting underserved populations at heightened risk for adverse health outcomes are manageable through education and policy changes.