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Pesticides affecting children’s cognitive performance in agricultural areas, says study

File picture: Reuters

File picture: Reuters

Published Nov 26, 2020


Cape Town – Children living in agricultural areas may experience headaches and reduced cognitive performance due to exposure to various pesticides in their daily lives.

This is according to the study conducted by scientists at the Centre for Environmental and Occupational Health Research in the School of Public Health and Family Medicine at UCT and the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute at the University of Basel.

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The study, recently published in the journal Environment International, is also part of the South African-Swiss Bilateral SARChI Chair in Global Environmental Health of Professors Aqiel Dalvie and Martin Röösli.

The study analysed information from 1 001 schoolchildren aged nine to 16 from seven schools in three agriculture areas in the Western Cape - the Hex River Valley, Grabouw and Piketberg.

“About 50% of the children reported ever having been engaged in activities exposing them to pesticides including farm activities, eating crops directly from the field and leisure activities.

’’Headache severity score was consistently increased with pesticide exposure, including farm activities such as eating crops, and leisure activities such as playing, swimming or bathing in nearby water,” Dalvie said.

For cognitive performance, an overall negative trend with pesticide exposure-related activities was observed.

“Among other findings, involvement in pesticide-related farm activities was associated with a lower multi-tasking accuracy score, while lower strategy in spatial working memory and lower paired associated learning was observed for those who pick crops off the field compared to those who do not pick crops off the field.

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’’Eating fruits directly from the vineyard or orchard was associated with a lower motor screening speed and lower rapid visual processing accuracy score,” Dalvie said.

“These results are suggestive of long-term adverse health effects among children exposed to pesticides which is being investigated by the cohort study.”

“Neurodevelopmental disorders linked to early exposures to pesticides include autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, poorer social behaviour, lower Intelligence and worse behavioural regulation,” he said.

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Application rates of pesticides in South Africa are the highest in Sub-Saharan Africa. Over 3 000 different types of pesticide product formulations are registered, including the possible neurotoxic and endocrine disrupting chemicals such as bifenthrin, chlorpyrifos, cypermethrin and mancozeb.

The scientists are calling for a stricter control on the registration, sale, management, storage, packaging and several processes after sales of pesticides.

“Given that these participants are not in occupation, a recommendation is to implement an educational program on pesticide related activities in schools and to learn from current interventions and their effectiveness,” Dalvie said.

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Cape Times

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