by Pesticide Action Network North America
A large-scale study has found evidence that children
living in regions of intensive pesticide use may be at risk for
impaired mental development. Released in April 2004 by Greenpeace
India, the study tested a total of 899 children in Indian states
where pesticides are used intensively in growing cotton, and compared
the results with a nearly equal number of children living where
few agricultural pesticides are applied.
Researchers evaluated children ages 4 to 5 years and 9 to 13 years,
and attempted to match income and social status among the two
subject groups. The study reports that in more than two thirds
of the tests, children living where pesticides are widely used
performed significantly worse.
"Children from regions as diverse as Tamil Nadu and Punjab,
who have nothing in common but their exposure to pesticides, [appear
to] share an inability to perform simple play-based exercises
-- such as catching a ball or assembling a jigsaw puzzle -- simply
because they've been exposed to pesticides over a period of time,"
says Kavitha Kuruganti, of Greenpeace India.
The researchers noted a significant difference in abilities between
the exposed and less-exposed children with trends remaining more
or less consistent across different locations and age groups.
For example, in Andhra Pradesh, the second highest pesticide using
state, less-exposed children performed a physical stamina test
for significantly longer periods of time (14.80 seconds longer
on average for 4-5 year old children and 64.50 seconds longer
for 9-13 year olds). In Tamil Nadu, where cotton
production and intensive pesticide use has been common for only
five years, exposed children aged 4 to 5 years scored nearly 30
percentage points lower on a 30 minute memory test, while children
aged 9-13 scored only 21 points lower than non exposed children.
The findings reinforce an earlier study performed in the Yaqui
Valley, a tobacco growing region of Mexico, which noted dramatic
deficits in brain function in rural children with long-term exposure
to pesticides. The Greenpeace India study used an assessment tool
developed for the Yaqui Valley study, adapted to conditions in
India. The assessment involved a series of tests designed for
the child to interpret as normal play,
involving mental ability, memory, concentration, cognitive skills
such as drawing, and balance, fine motor and gross motor coordination.
Researchers pointed out that the study captured the "more
insidious effects of pesticides," reflected in the long term
and chronic effects on children's development. The study concluded,
"This is a great cause for concern and alarm since the very
basic right to healthy development is being taken away from these
In India, cotton occupies less than five per cent of cultivated
land, but represents an estimated 54% of agricultural pesticide
use. Organophosphate pesticides, which affect the central nervous
system, are the most commonly used class of pesticides used in
India. Pesticides such as methyl-parathion and monocrotophos,
classified by the World Health Organization as "highly to
extremely hazardous to human health" are also
produced and used in India. According to the United Nations Food
and Agriculture Organization, these highly toxic pesticides are
not safe for use in developing countries where access to water,
chemical safety training and protective equipment may not be available.
Study authors note that routes of exposure to pesticides for
the children in the study areas are both direct and indirect,
given the extensive cotton cultivation. Exposures may occur before
conception through the impact of pesticides on sperm, in utero,
via breastmilk, and through residues in food and water, soil and
air. In many of the study villages, dry cotton stalks are burned
for cooking fuel, releasing pesticide residues in smoke.
The study also looked at pesticide alternatives available in
India for cotton production, including a new system of crop and
pesticide management, Non Pesticidal Management (NPM) as well
as organic cotton production and integrated pest management (IPM).
At the same time the study noted a lack of government resources
for non chemical agricultural production. Greenpeace India offered
a number of recommendations for government including; greater
support to organic farming (especially for cotton); bans on pesticides
restricted in other countries; stronger pesticide regulation and
holding the pesticide industry responsible for damage caused by
its products. Greenpeace also called on the pesticide industry
to compensate the affected children.
Sources: Arrested Development, Greenpeace, India, Kuruganti,
K, Children at Risk, Pesticides exposure hinders mental development
amongst farmers' children; Greenpeace releases evidence from nation-wide
An Anthropological Approach to the Evaluation of Preschool Children
Exposed to Pesticides in Mexico, Guillette, E, et al, Environmental
Health Perspectives, Vol 106, No 6: June 1998; PANUPS: Pesticide
Exposure May Impair Children's Brain Function, June 6, 1998, http://www.panna.org/resources/pestis/PESTIS980608.1.html.