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Researching the Effects of Pesticides on Children

by Kathleen Scalise, Public Affairs
posted August 19, 1998

Vice President Al Gore announced last week that the first center to study the effect of pesticides on children will be established at Berkeley as part of a federally funded initiative focusing on children's health.

The center will be one of eight new research centers funded by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Health and Human Services, each of which will study how the health of children is affected by environmental exposures.

At Berkeley, Brenda Eskenazi, a professor at the School of Public Health, and her collaborators will focus on pesticide exposure in the children of California farm workers. The School of Public Health has received a $1.18 million award for this work, according to a White House press release.

Eskenazi, professor of maternal and child health and epidemiology, has studied for 20 years the developmental and reproductive effects of chemical exposures, such as dioxins and pesticides, caffeine and tobacco smoke.

"Recent preliminary studies show young children can be exposed to pesticides from residues in their food, as well as from their normal exploration of their environment," said Eskenazi. Farm worker children, she added, may be exposed to even higher levels as a result of pesticide drift, tainted breast milk, playing in the fields or tracking pesticides into their homes.

The White House press release said the goal of the centers is to "address two of the most important areas of children's environmental health -- the causes of asthma and the effects of pesticide exposure."

At five of the centers researchers will examine links between the rise in asthma rates and secondhand smoke, smog and other pollutants. The three other centers will investigate children's vulnerabilities to pesticides, which can affect the endocrine system, reduce intellectual development and damage the central nervous system.

Pesticide exposure is the focus of the Berkeley center because "children are small, and we have no idea how these chemicals are metabolized in small bodies," Eskenazi said. "We know nothing about whether there are health effects from chronic, low-level pesticide exposure in children."

California uses more pesticides than any other state -- 40 percent of the nationwide total -- so there is a particular concern about exposure in this state, said Eskenazi.

"California is also unique because it is the only state where pesticide use is tracked," she said.

Eskenazi said preventing illness in children is of great concern to farm communities and growers, who will reap the benefits of the studies. What is learned also will suggest risk factors for children not living in agricultural settings.

At the Berkeley center, the School of Public Health will collaborate with Children's Hospital of Oakland; the California Department of Health Services; the California Environmental Protection Agency; Stanford University; the Alameda and Monterey health departments, La Clinica de Salud del Valle de Salinas and La Natividad Medical Center, both in Salinas, Calif.; Centers for Disease Control; and the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas.

In addition to the federal research center at Berkeley, the other seven centers will be at the University of Southern California's School of Medicine; the University of Iowa's College of Medicine; the University of Michigan's School of Public Health; Johns Hopkins University's Children's Center; the University of Washington's Department of Environmental Health; Mount Sinai School of Medicine, in New York; and Columbia University's School of Public Health, also in New York. The EPA and the HHS has allocated $10.6 million for the centers, which were selected through an extensive peer review process by health experts in and out of government.

President Bill Clinton issued the Executive Order on the Protection of Children from Environmental Health Risks and Safety Risks on April 21, 1997, making children's environmental health a federal priority.

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