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Farm Pesticides Associated with Risks for Community Residents

(Beyond Pesticides, January 19, 2007) A recent study conducted in Manitoba, Canada, has found that residents in communities in which agricultural pesticides have been applied heavily are at a higher risk for eye disorders and for giving birth to children with abnormalities or birth defects. Significantly, these results are not confined to those who work with pesticides directly—such as farmers—but are relevant among entire populations.

“Often studies are done on a particular people like, let’s say, the group of farmers who have direct contact with pesticides,” says Patricia Martens, Ph.D., director of the Manitoba Center for Health Policy. “This study was looking at the entire population.”

Jennifer Magoon, a graduate student from the University of Manitoba, looked at Manitoba’s database of public health records, comparing records from areas of intensive agricultural pesticide use with areas that use little. She studied 323,368 health records from the years 2001 to 2004, which included pharmaceutical files, physician claims, and hospital separations. What she has found are “statistically significant” links between higher pesticide use and health problems.

She has found that, compared with areas of average pesticide use, the chance for abnormalities in babies born in high-use areas rose four percentage points for males and three and a half percentage points for females. Abnormalities include low birth weight, jaundice, and respiratory ailments. Additionally, the chance for eye disorders increased nearly two percentage points and the risk for mild to severe birth defects rose a percentage point in males.

Although the abstract of the study says “regular pesticide use in crop farming, especially insecticides, may be adversely affecting the health of the rural residents of Southern Manitoba,” Ms. Magoon also points out the problem with establishing a causal relationship between pesticide use and health effects. “Too many factors exist that can govern a person’s health to be able to draw such cause-and-effect conclusions, even in a study of considerable scope,” she says. However, despite the care with which scientists must choose their words, public health officials find the results compelling. One rural health official says the study continues “the work of understanding how chemicals might be adversely connected to rural life.”

Of particular concern are insecticides. “It was really insecticides that were what stood out,” says Ms. Magoon. Insecticide use is highest in Manitoba’s southwest corner; they are used often on potato, spring wheat, and canola crops. Some common agricultural insecticides include chlorpyrifos, which is linked to ADHD and delayed peripheral neuropathy, and permethrin, which is a neurotoxin and immunotoxin.

Public health officials hope that this information will help them to continue to make connections between environmental exposures and health endpoints.

Source: Winnipeg Free Press


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