Study links prenatal pesticides, lowered IQ

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Addie Baxter talks about a study recently released by UC Berkeley researchers about prenatal exposure to pesticides and postnatal cognitive development.

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A recent study published Thursday by UC Berkeley researchers is catching national attention due to the finding that prenatal exposure to pesticides is associated with lowered IQ later in childhood.

After monitoring pesticide levels broken down in the urine of pregnant women in a farming community in Monterey County in 1999 and 2000, scientists monitored pesticide levels in their children following birth. The group of 329 children - now between the ages of nine and 10 - were administered standard IQ tests at the age of seven. Results found that children whose mothers had higher levels of organophosphate pesticides in their urine during pregnancy scored an average of seven points lower.

"In other words, this means children with special education needs are more likely to be found among women with higher levels of pesticides in their bodies during pregnancy," said co-author Jonathan Chevrier, a researcher in the campus School of Public Health.

According to Chevrier, pesticide exposure interferes with messaging systems in the brain by affecting enzymes that control neurotransmitters.

The study - published April 21 in the online journal Environmental Health Perspectives - appeared in tandem with two separate studies conducted by researchers at Columbia University and the Mount Sinai Medical Center, which came to similar conclusions regarding the correlation between pesticide exposure and childhood IQ, despite testing completely different groups across the country.

The separate studies were all funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, a division of the National Institute of Health.

Organophosphate pesticides are a large class that made up one-third of the pesticides used across the country in 2007, according to Chevrier. Exposure to these kinds of pesticides occurs mostly through food consumption, but some organophosphate pesticides, such as chlorpyrifos and diazinon, were also available for home use until recently, meaning some people may still have them in their homes. Those who live close to farms or work in crop fields could be exposed to the chemicals and bring them home on their clothes.

Spokeswoman for the state Department of Pesticide Regulation Lea Brooks said organophosphate pesticide use has reduced statewide in recent years. Chlorpyrifos and diazinon were popular for home and garden use before being gradually reduced in favor of alternative products over the last decade, though still widely used in agriculture.

The Department of Pesticide Regulation's 2009 report on pesticide use states that 1.1 million pounds of diazinon were applied for use statewide but declined to about 141,366 pounds in 2009. Chlorpyrifos levels were 2.1 million statewide in 2000 but steadily went down to 1.2 million by 2009.

"In general, there are many things that pregnant women shouldn't be exposed to besides organophosphates. That's just common sense," said Jim Tuttle, vice president of sales for Monterey Lawn and Garden Products Inc.

UC Berkeley researchers said they will follow the children to see if effects remain or go away later in life. At the moment, they said they do not believe the IQ level can be passed down genetically to the children's future children, unless they would also be exposed to the same pesticides during pregnancy.


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