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Your Environment. Your Health.

Pesticides for Flower Harvest Linked to Neurobehavioral Effects in Children

Jose Suarez-Lopez, M.D., Ph.D.
University of California, San Diego
R01ES025792, R21ES026084

A study, funded in part by NIEHS, found that changes in short-term neurological behaviors in children were associated with the peak pesticide spraying season before the Mother’s Day flower harvest. The findings are among the first to suggest that in children who are not flower workers, a peak period of pesticide use may temporarily affect neurobehavior.

To find out if insecticides commonly used to treat flowers for pests affected the neurobehavior of children, the researchers examined 308 children, 4 to 9 years old, who participated in the Secondary Exposure to Pesticides among Children and Adolescents study. The children lived in flower farming communities in Ecuador, but they did not actually work on the farms. The researchers conducted behavioral and blood tests on the children twice — before the time of peak Mother’s Day flower production and between 63 and 100 days after harvest.

Organophosphate insecticides exert their toxicity by inhibiting the enzyme acetylcholinesterase (AChE), which regulates the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. The blood tests showed that AChE activity was lower in children examined sooner after Mother’s Day than in those examined later, indicating that the pesticides were reaching the children. Children tested closer to Mother's Day also exhibited lower performance for most neurobehavioral areas, including attention and inhibitory control, visuospatial processing, and sensory motor skills, compared with children examined later.

The researchers noted that because the study collected and analyzed data for distinct groups of children at specific points in time, future work needs to assess exposure before, during, and after the peak periods.

Citation: Suarez-Lopez JR, Checkoway H, Jacobs DR Jr, Al-Delaimy WK, Gahagan S. 2017. Potential short-term neurobehavioral alterations in children associated with a peak pesticide spray season: The Mother's Day flower harvest in Ecuador. Neurotoxicology 60:125-133.