Pesticides: A Big Problem for Pregnancy and Children

Submitted by bbennett on
Markus Spiske

Pregnancy comes with precautions such as no heavy lifting, light exercise, getting plenty of rest, and avoiding air travel closer to one’s due date. There is another concern to add to the list: pesticides. 

According to the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs , being in contact with pesticides is harmful, especially during pregnancy. Pesticides not only affect the parent, but the unborn child as well. Pesticide exposure during pregnancy may lead to miscarriages, preterm births, low birth weight, birth defects, and learning problems in children. Researchers have also found that these impacts can cause long-lasting effects in children. 

Pesticide exposure is hard to study. It’s difficult to point to a single source, especially if the exposure is at low doses over the course of years. Recently, a group of scientists has made progress in understanding the impacts of pesticide exposure. The Center for the Health Assessment of Mothers and Children of Salinas (CHAMACOS) study is the longest-running longitudinal birth cohort study of pesticides and other environmental exposures among children in a farmworker community. 500 children have been examined since birth for 19 years. The health assessment is still ongoing and closely follows each child’s neurodevelopment and risk-taking behaviors, while the children are entering into their late teens and early adulthood.  

Findings of the study thus far include risks from the following pesticides: 

  • Organophosphates: “shorter duration of pregnancy, poorer neonatal reflexes, lower IQ and poorer cognitive functioning in children, increased risk of attention problems in children” 
  • DDT: poorer mental development in two-year-old children 
  • PCBs: Altered maternal and neonatal thyroid levels  

 People Most Affected by Pesticides 

An important element is that the study largely followed low-income Latinx mothers and farmworkers' families. This is important to note because the communities that are mainly affected by pesticides are low-income Latinx families.  

Further complicating risks to pregnant farmworkers is the loss of reproductive rights in much of the US. Considering all the risks pregnancy entails and the high mortality rate of Black and brown mothers in the US, the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade was an unprecedented reversal of the rights of people who can get pregnant and will harm people who are already marginalized in this country. This will cause a disadvantage to Black and Brown people, LGBTQIA+ people, Indigenous people, people living in poverty, immigrants, non-Christians, and people with disabilities. Since most farmworkers in the US are Latino/a without access to funds to pursue reproductive care out of state, we will likely see a rise in risky pregnancies, compounded by pesticide exposures, in farmworkers. 

Increased Autism Risk in Children Exposed to Pesticides  

Exposure to pesticides during pregnancy may also raise a child’s risk for developing autism. A study published in the BMJ by Von Ehrenstein eVon Ehrenstein et al. found it is possible that pregnant mothers living in areas with heavy pesticide spraying (including glyphosate (the main ingredient in RoundUp), chlorpyrifos, diazonon, malathion, avermectin, and permethrin) set them apart from those with little to no exposure. Babies exposed in their first year of life appear to be at higher risk of developing autism with accompanying intellectual disabilities. These findings should lead policymakers to create changes in pesticide regulations to better protect children. 

  Moms Fighting Back 

Moms living in areas with heavy pesticides are leading the way to impactful change, starting in California. The Guardian interviewed Fidelia Morales, a mother of five, who lives near citrus groves where chlorpyrifos use is common. She said pesticide exposure has hurt her family, especially her 11-year-old son. This exposure has not just affected the Morales family—many Central Valley residents traveled to the state capital and testified about the fear of the long-term impacts on their families.  

These actions  got  policymakers’ attention. In May 2019, Governor Gavin Newsom and CalEPA announced that they had listened to residents and that a ban was “needed to prevent the significant harm this pesticide causes children, farmworkers, and vulnerable communities”. The state phased our chlorpyrifos over the next two years. Community leaders and mothers noted this is “only the beginning- and they are just getting started.” And state action in California, Hawaii, and New York built momentum for the US EPA to issue a ban on the use of chlorpyrifos  in food products in 2022.    

The ban on chlorpyrifos in food crops is an important step forward, but many toxic pesticides remain in use throughout the United States.  

Green America supports the Precautionary Principle.  Pesticides should not be allowed unless they are proven to be safe. Instead of the status quo, pesticides are allowed until they are proven unsafe. Green America urges states and the Federal Government to follow the precautionary principle. 

What’s Next?  

Public awareness and mobilization. Increasing  public awareness and activism on pesticides will  lead policymakers to change policies about pest control and start looking for alternatives that are safe for human and environmental health. 

Here are 3 ways to help the cause:   

  • Tell the EPA to ban dangerous organophosphates
  • Buy more organic foods as your budget allows and when available 
  • Ask farmers about regenerative agriculture with these helpful questions 
  • Ask federal legislators to support the Protect America's Children from Toxic Pesticides Act (PACTPA) and the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment (CARES) to protect child agricultural workers in the US overall.  

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