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Kids & pesticides: A problem that crosses borders

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Children living near banana farms in Costa Rica face widespread exposure to the neurotoxic pesticide chlorpyrifos — at levels EPA would consider unsafe.

In a study measuring a chlorpyrifos biomarker in children's bodies, researchers found that nearly 100% of the samples exceeded the EPA safety limits set with children's safety in mind. Urine samples were taken from kids living near banana plantations or plantain farms in the Talamanca region.

Organophosphate pesticides such as chlorpyrifos can have adverse impacts on neurodevelopment in children, according to a convincing and growing body of scientific evidence. Exposure can lead to lowered IQs and alter the architecture of the brain.

Much of the latest science on these neurodevelopmental effects is summarized in PAN's recent report, A Generation in Jeopardy.

Exported fruit "protected" with toxic pesticide

Pesticide use in Costa Rica is very high, and especially so for bananas and plantains grown for export.

To protect the fruits from insects and fulfill product standards, banana or plantain bunches are generally covered with a plastic bag treated with chlorpyrifos at a 1% concentration.

The researchers measured a breakdown product of chlorpyrifos in the urine of 140 Costa Rican children (ages 6-9) living near conventional banana plantations and plantain farms, as well as those living near organic banana farms.

Chlorpyrifos in the body is metabolized, or broken down, to a compound called 3,5,6-trichloro-2-pyridinol, or TCPy. Based on the TCPy levels in children’s urine, an absorbed daily dose can be estimated. Other routes of environmental exposure were assessed as well, including hand and foot washes, house dust, air, drinking water and soil.

The estimated daily dose found in this study exceeded EPA's chronic reference dose (a level considered "safe") for children and other sensitive populations in 97% of the samples from the banana farm village, 82% of the samples from the plantain village, and interestingly, 68% of the samples from a village near organic banana production.

But the children in the organic banana village exceed the safety limits by less. On average, children in the conventional banana and plantain villages had twice the TCPy levels in their urine compared to children from the organic banana village.

It’s a small world

In 2001, chlorpyrifos was phased out from residential use in the U.S. in response to strong evidence of its neurotoxic effects — particularly for children. Agricultural uses of the insecticide continue, with an estimated 10 million pounds applied annually.

While overall U.S. usage of organophosphate pesticides has been declining in recent years, in Costa Rica the practice of using chlorpyrifos-treated bags to protect produce is on the rise. Additionally, when we import bananas grown on farms using chlorpyrifos, U.S. children may be exposed to a lower dose — which studies suggest can still be harmful.

Ending use of this dangerous pesticide would be a positive step towards protecting the health of children living in communities around the world.

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