Crop spraying with the world’s most widely used pesticide could be a greater danger to children than passive smoking, scientists say.

A study has linked elemental sulphur to higher levels of asthma and breathing problems in youngsters living near sprayed fields.

Significantly, the chemical is widely used on both conventional and organic farms on the basis that it is a “natural” substance.

It is typically used to prevent and eradicate fungi such as mildew from fruit crops such as strawberries and grapes, as well as scab” on apples and pears. The chemical is also widely used on wheat, barley, hops, sugar beet and swedes.

However, the fine powder can drift and damage the lungs of children living nearby, according to the landmark study.

Academics at the University of California, Berkeley, say farmers may need to change how they use the spray. This could include a ban on spraying near homes, or wetting the powder before spreading it, so it is less likely to blow into neighbouring communities.

The research, funded by the US government, is the first to link agricultural use of sulphur with poorer respiratory health in children living nearby.

Researchers looked at children in Salinas, California, known for growing strawberries, lettuce, tomatoes and spinach, and called America’s salad bowl. It is also known for grapes.

The study linked reduced lung function, more asthma symptoms and higher asthma medication use in children living less than 1.6km from recent elemental sulphur applications compared to unexposed children.

Researchers found an association with the spraying of the fungicide and a fall in the lung function of children aged 7 who lived within 1000m.

This was worse than the reduction shown in children of the same age exposed to passive smoking via their mothers for five years.

This study data is consistent with anecdotal reports of farm workers. - Daily Mail