Youth around the world often work in agriculture, facing health hazards including pesticides that can have an adverse impact on an adolescent’s developing brain. Organophosphorus pesticides, known neurotoxins, are applied in many countries. While studies have examined prenatal and early-life pesticide exposures, few have looked at adolescent exposure.
To better understand how these pesticides affect the health of young agricultural workers, researchers led by Diane Rohlman, associate professor of occupational and environmental health in the University of Iowa’s College of Public Health, looked at adolescent pesticide applicators in Egypt. Their findings, published in Metabolic Brain Disease, indicate that young pesticide applicators do have negative health outcomes due to pesticide exposure.
The researchers studied adolescent pesticide applicators working in Egyptian cotton fields and non-applicators. In addition to testing their blood and urine for evidence of pesticides, they conducted a number of tests measuring cognitive function. Biomarkers of pesticide exposure were higher in applicators compared to non-applicators, and applicators had poorer short-term memory and attention-executive function than non-applicators.
This work was followed by a longitudinal study to characterize changes in exposure before, during, and after the application season. Rohlman says because the study is longitudinal they can measure changes over time.
“We want to know if the health outcomes are reversible after the exposure ends,” says Rohlman. “Also, the brain goes through a period of development during adolescence, and we’re trying to see if that makes youth more vulnerable to the effects of pesticide exposure.”
Agricultural workers around the world are at risk to exposures from pesticides. Limited resources and occupational and environmental conditions all contribute to this problem. Understanding exposure during agricultural activities and the impact on health will allow researchers to develop effective interventions to reduce exposure and protect the health of both workers and people living in agricultural communities.