Early exposure to agricultural pesticides may harm children’s lungs – even more than secondhand smoke – researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, are saying.
The study links organophosphate pesticide metabolites in the urine of 279 children aged 6 months to 5 years living in Salinas Valley with decreased lung function. The area is a hub for lettuce, grapes, orchids and many more crops.
The children were part of the Center for the Health Assessment of Mothers and Children of Salinas (CHAMACOS). The longitudinal study followed children from before birth up to adolescence.
Researchers gave children a test to assess their ability to take deep breaths and then expel the air at the age of 7. For every tenfold increase in concentrations of organophosphate metabolites, a 159-millileter decrease in lung function – about 8% less air – when blowing out a candle was observed by researchers.
The decrease in breathing ability is similar to that caused by exposure to secondhand smoke from mothers.
The findings didn’t change even after the team accounted for smoking by the kids’ mothers, air pollution, mold, pets in the home and other factors.
“The kids in our study with higher pesticide exposure had lower breathing capacity,” study author Rachel Raanan said a university news release. “If the reduced lung function persists into adulthood, it could leave our participants at greater risk of developing respiratory problems like COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease].” 
Earlier studies had focused on the harmful effects of organophosphate pesticides on adult agricultural workers. These chemicals target the nervous system.
“This is the first evidence suggesting that children exposed to organophosphates have poorer lung function,” said study senior author Brenda Eskenazi, a professor of epidemiology and of maternal and child health at UC Berkeley.
The study didn’t examine how the children were exposed to the pesticides, but the team warned that farmworkers should remove their clothes and shoes before entering homes. They also said that children should be kept away from nearby fields when they are being sprayed with pesticides and people should shut their windows on those days. Washing fruits and vegetables before eating them can also remove some of the pesticides. 
Of course, organic is always the best option to avoid dangerous organophosphates. In fact, in February 2015, researchers from the University of Washington School of Public Health found that people who ate organic produce had significantly lower levels of organophosphate pesticide exposures compared with those who ate commercially grown produce.
In May 2014, a study published in the Journal of Environmental Research showed that participants who ate an 80% organic diet had 89% less pesticide residue in their urine than participants who ate conventionally grown produce. And all it took was one week of organic eating for participants to experience a decrease in levels of dialkyl phosphates (DAPs), a non-selective organophosphate metabolite.
Organophosphates are still widely used, the authors write about the newest findings in the journal Thorax, but their residential use was largely phased out in the mid-2000s. Organophosphate use has dropped in California from 4.6 million pounds in 2000, when the study began, to 3.5 million pounds in 2013.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed last month eliminating all agricultural uses of chlorpyrifos, one of the most heavily used organophosphates, and others are also under evaluation.
 UC Berkeley News
Julie Fidler is a freelance writer, legal blogger, and the author of Adventures in Holy Matrimony: For Better or the Absolute Worst. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two ridiculously spoiled cats. She occasionally pontificates on her blog.