A recent study done in a region of Italy where pesticides are widely used indicates (yet again) that some communities contend with an unfair burden of pesticide exposure where their children live, learn, and play. This study is a follow-up to one done in the same region of Italy in 2019, and co-authors include some of my colleagues from Pesticide Action Network International.
The study area, South Tyrol, is a leading region for European apple and wine production. The area is mountainous so the land available for cultivation and habitation is limited; apple orchards and vineyards are often located alongside public places like playgrounds.
Four seasons, 96 samples, 32 pesticide residues found
In conducting the study, trained staff from regional authorities took grass samples from public areas in 17 rural municipalities. Of the 24 sites tested, 19 were playgrounds, four were school yards, and one was a public market place. Preliminary samples were taken in spring 2017, with subsequent seasonal samplings taken between May 2018 and March 2019, with one sampling date in each season (spring, summer, fall, and winter).
Ninety-six percent of the sites were contaminated with at least one pesticide residue during the year, with more than one residue found in 79% of sites. The number of residues, concentrations of residues, and the proportion of contaminated sites varied statistically significantly between seasons. Less pesticide residues were found in the fall and winter. The authors had access to information on what pesticides were used in the region, but a question remains for me around when these pesticides were applied, which isn’t mentioned in the study.
I work on air monitoring with community members as part of my job at PAN, and we almost never know what pesticides are applied or at what times. This makes it a challenge to know when to monitor, and is also one of the most common questions we get from community members. It’s hard when we can’t answer this for them.
What kinds of chemicals?
The highest concentrations of chemicals found were of the insecticide chlorpyrifos-methyl, the herbicide oxadiazon, and the fungicides captan and fluazinam. The concentrations found on the grass were relatively low, but indicate potential for chronic exposure to pesticide residues. A preservative agent was also found — one of its uses is on apples or citrus, to avoid skin browning.
Most of the chemicals detected were fungicides, regardless of the time of year the samples were taken. This makes sense as fungicides are the most common type of pesticide used for intensive apple and wine production. The most hazardous pesticide found was chlorpyrifos, which is the neurotoxic insecticide that affects children’s brain development. The majority of the detected pesticides (76%) are classified as "endocrine active substances" in Europe to varying degrees.
Over the course of the year, repeated contamination was found for seven of the sites, mainly with the fungicides captan and fluazinam.
All of the chemicals found (except for the preservative agent) were characterized in risk assessments as low volatility, and not expected to move beyond application sites farther than a few meters — they clearly did. Centers of the sample sites were less than 100 meters to the edge of the first plants in the agricultural fields, and some sites were used as controls, with distance being greater than or equal to 100 meters. The distance did not have a statistically significant effect when it came to the total median concentration of pesticide residues.
Of the 33 different chemicals found, 97% of them were approved for use in fruit orchards and vineyards in Italy. The two that weren’t approved for use on fruit were approved for general agriculture, and also known to be in wood preservatives. Only 10 of the pesticides they found in the study were approved for non-professional users, providing strong indication that the main source of contamination was agricultural use.
Protecting children, in Italy and everywhere
It’s recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics that children’s exposure to pesticides should be limited as much as possible as they are especially vulnerable to the effects of pesticides. For their body weight, children take in more air and eat and drink more in comparison to adults. They are also still developing, which makes pesticide exposures even more concerning.
This study provides an important real-world picture of potential pesticide exposure to children playing on fields or playgrounds. These data indicate the need to act out of precaution, especially when it comes to children living in pesticide-intensive areas, and exposure to chemicals with endocrine disrupting effects.