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California’s Salinas Valley has been dubbed the “salad bowl” of the nation because of its enormous agricultural output. Here, pesticides are necessary to maintain the agricultural economy of the region, but such widespread use has adverse health effects on farmworkers and their families. Because farmworkers inadvertently carry pesticide particles on their body and clothes when they come home, pesticide exposure affects the entire family.

The University of California, Berkeley’s Center for the Health Assessment of Mothers and Children of Salinas (CHAMACOS, meaning kids in Spanish) has been conducting a longitudinal study since 1998 to understand the health effects of long-term pesticide exposure on moms and, in particular, their kids. Their main goal is to examine whether there are significant differences between Salinas and urban children when comparing their fetal growth, neurological development, and respiratory illnesses.

Although this is a long-term study, the prenatal and early childhood periods are the most important because fetus’ and kids’ brains are still developing and are easily influenced by foreign chemicals. The kids’ small size means that even a tiny amount of pesticide can have a significant effect. Kids’ hand-to-mouth behavior also means that any pesticide particles that float into their homes may be ingested. In addition, eating conventional versus organic produce in Salinas resulted in a 44% increase in pesticide metabolite levels in kids. Although this shows that organic food is healthier, 40% of farm-working families can’t afford costlier organic produce. 

Farmworkers harvesting produce in Salinas Valley

Image Credit: Jeff Greenberg

Researchers found that CHAMACOS moms had consistently higher urinary pesticide levels than the national average at any point in their pregnancies. When researchers investigated the potential effects of these higher pesticide metabolite levels, they found that pregnancies were shorter, resulting in at least minor birth problems. Kids had decreased mental development and IQ at age 7. At school-age, many had problems focusing their attention and some kids had long-term respiratory issues such as asthma.

Fortunately, CHAMACOS is a community-based participatory research study, meaning that researchers share their findings with the participants and work together to limit exposure. Before this study, 42% of farmworkers in Salinas had no pesticide safety training and 62% worried that pesticides could harm their family’s health. In response, the researchers reached out to over 20,000 people. Together, they implemented solutions such as providing warm water in fields for washing and providing gloves and coveralls that would be removed before heading home and laundered before their next use. After these measures were put in place, urinary pesticide levels were much lower in farmworkers and their families.

Despite this success, it is important to remember that these solutions do not remove exposure from conventional produce. More research must be done to determine how farmworking families can limit their dietary pesticide intake yet maintain their livelihood.

Featured Image Credit: Paul Grebliunas

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