Two New Studies Link Pesticides to Suicide, Birth Abnormalities

Two New Studies Link Pesticides to Suicide, Birth Abnormalities

Two recently released studies have linked pesticide exposure to devastating health problems around the world. One study, conducted by researchers from the University of California Santa Barbara, linked gestational pesticide exposure to fetal abnormalities. The second study linked the presence of these chemicals in rural Asian farming communities to drastically increased incidence of farmer suicide.

The UC Santa Barbara study found that pregnant women who are exposed to pesticides as a result of living near agricultural land are 9 percent more likely to give birth to a baby with birth abnormalities; the risk of giving birth prematurely rose by about 8 percent with pesticide exposure.

Researchers also found that extreme exposures to pesticides (more than 11,000 kg over the course of the pregnancy) led to even greater risks: an 11 percent increased risk of preterm birth and 20 percent increased probability of low birth weight.

The researchers compared 500,000 birth records for people born in the San Joaquin Valley between 1997 and 2011 and cross-referenced this information with the levels of pesticides used in the area.

“Concerns about the effects of harmful environmental exposure on birth outcomes have existed for decades,” the researchers noted in the journal Nature Communications. “Great advances have been made in understanding the effects of smoking and air pollution, among others, yet research on the effects of pesticides has remained inconclusive.”

Peer researchers applauded the “meticulous way” in which the study was carried out in comments to the Independent, but some noted one unfortunate gap in the research: which pesticides were responsible for the problem. The researchers addressed this gap in their paper, writing that accessing this information was “extremely challenging, because many chemicals are used in conjunction or in close spatial or temporal windows.”

Dr. Christopher Connolly, a neurobiologist at Dundee University told the Independent that it was “important that the study is repeated with a detailed list of the chemicals used at each site and the impact on births correlated to individual pesticide (and cocktail) application.”

Another study published at the end of last month in The Lancet linked pesticides to another health issue entirely: that of farmer suicides.

The study focused on rural Asia where, according to the World Health Organization, 89 percent of farmer suicides take place. The team of researchers tracked the frequency of suicides in villages that received lockable pesticide storage containers and found that while the group that received the containers was nearly 50 percent as likely to lock their pesticides away, instances of pesticide self-poisoning were very similar between the two groups.

The researchers concluded that safe storage of pesticides is not enough to prevent this problem and called for “a worldwide ban” on the use of these chemicals in agriculture as a result of their findings. Lead author, David Gunnell, DSc, of University of Bristol, told the Daily Star that such a ban would be the best way to prevent tens of thousands of deaths every year.

250,000 farmers commit suicide every year from pesticide self-poisoning, according to the WHO. The organization notes that this is one of the three most common means of suicide worldwide and accounts for up to 20 percent of all suicides.

The study notes that suicide rates have decreased by 75 percent over the last 20 years in Sri Lanka due to the implementation of alternative pest management approaches, lending credence to the suggestion of the researchers to ban these chemicals.

“By encouraging a transition to safer organic practices, and implementing restrictions on imports containing toxic pesticides, developed countries like the U.S. can assist in reducing farmer suicide rates,” writes Beyond Pesticides of these results.

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Emily Monaco is a food and culture writer based in Paris. Her work has been featured in the Wall... More about Emily Monaco