Pesticide Action Network Updates Service (PANUPS)
Pesticides Affect Child Development in India
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 children.”
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 study, http://www.greenpeaceindia.org/recentnewsdetails.php?Newstype=subnews&rnid=211; 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.
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