Researchers are working with high school students in California to reduce pesticide exposure in children
06/16/2019 // Ralph Flores // Views

The city of Salinas, which sits just outside the Greater Bay Area in California, is known for a lot of things: It’s the hometown of renowned author and Nobel laureate John Steinbeck; it has a climate perfect for growing flowers and grapes; and it’s often known as the “Salad Bowl of the World,” on account of the area producing over 30 percent of the world’s lettuce.

It’s also home to the longest-running cohort study on the effects of pesticide exposure children in farmworker communities. The longitudinal birth cohort study -- called the Center for the Health Assessment of Mothers and Children of Salinas Study -- has been measuring families for pesticide and chemical exposures for nearly two decades. The CHAMACOS study, which means “little children” in Spanish, is also a key player in educating the community about ways to reduce pesticide exposure, even before their findings reach the news.

The research, which enrolled pregnant women during the start of the study, is coming full circle: 19 years after it started, around a dozen children featured in the original CHAMACOS study are now working with researchers to further understand the effects of pesticide exposure and forge new community partnerships.

Adding new blood to solve a decades-old problem

The CHAMACOS study, run by the University of California (UC), Berkeley, is in a unique position when it comes to epidemiology, which tackles the distribution of diseases in different groups of people. For one, very few places can top Salinas -- which is an hour’s drive away from San Jose -- when it comes to being agricultural. The city is between two mountain ranges along the state’s Central Coast, and the Mediterranean climate makes it ideal from growing crops. In addition, the community has a huge youth demographic -- almost a third of the population is under 18 years old, making it ideal for longitudinal and cohort studies.


But the city’s idyllic landscape hides something sinister: Before the study, the Salinas Valley used around half-a-million pounds of organophosphate pesticides each year. Following the ban of DDT in the ‘70s, farmers in the region adopted organophosphates, thinking it was a safer alternative to the highly toxic organochlorine insecticide. As farmworkers, including pregnant women, continued to pick, pack, and handle produce every day, the community was growing increasingly concerned with the uptick in chronic diseases. As the team spoke to mothers with cancer and children with ADHD, they found that most of them believed that pesticides could be the culprit behind these conditions. (Related: Pesticide exposure in the womb increases chances of developing autism.)

“They just didn’t know. Nobody knew,” explained Kim Harley, an epidemiologist at UC Berkley and associate director for the CHAMACOS study, in an article on the online site Ensia. “There was so much we didn’t know about the effects of pesticides on children’s development.”

For the original study, the researchers enrolled 601 expectant mothers, all of which were low-income and either worked in the fields or lived with someone who did. Their children would then be subjected to a series of lab tests, MRIs, and cognitive exercises to determine whether pesticides have had an adverse effect in their brains. These tests were done every one to two years.

After a decade, the researchers developed the Youth Councils cohorts, which were also based in Salinas. The studies were designed to involve the youth in projects that tackle problems in the community and to resolve these problems.

The first Youth Councils group was involved in a photography project that included a series of talks on how the use of pesticides and access to healthy foods influenced health outcomes in Salinas. The second group investigated chemical exposures in personal care products like makeup.

The latest group studied pesticide exposure among teenage girls in the Valley in a project they called Chamacos of Salinas Evaluating Chemicals in Homes & Agriculture or COSECHA – the Spanish word for “harvest.”

Their study, which was published in Science of The Total Environment, revealed that pesticide exposure has far-reaching effects beyond farmlands. The researchers used silicone wristbands to measure pesticide exposure in 14- to 16-year-old girls in Salinas Valley. A total of 100 girls were enrolled in the study, all of whom were also part of the CHAMACOS study.

After a week of wearing the silicone wristbands, the team collected and tested them for chemical exposure. The results revealed the presence of at least 25 pesticides. The list includes chlorpyrifos, a pesticide associated with developmental delays and disorders in children, including ADHD – and fipronil sulfide, which a recent study revealed to be highly toxic to fish, among others.

Putting science into action

The study also found that specific behaviors also mitigated pesticide exposure. In particular, the team found that homes with doormats had lower pesticide exposure. As a result, the Youth Councils group designed a doormat with a message to “wipe your feet and remove your shoes.” These were given to pregnant women and those with young children across the Salinas Valley. The group also wrote radio novellas that talk about reducing the risk of pesticide exposure.

Their work on raising awareness has not gone unnoticed. The novellas are aired in 10 stations across California, Oregon, and Washington, and various groups have looked into sharing these in their own workplaces.

For James Nolan, a community outreach coordinator at UC Berkeley’s Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health who facilitates the CHAMACOS youth council, working with the youth in a community – especially gaining their trust – is a long-term commitment. But it’s one that has great rewards, given its potential to open new perspectives in research.

“It’s a longer-term endeavor, but it benefits people’s relationships with science,” Nolan added. “It can democratize and demystify research.”

Sources include: 1 2

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