California is one of the greatest crop producers in America and subsequently uses a vast amount of potentially harmful pesticides, some of which are harming children. Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley asked a group of children exposed to pesticides to blow out a candle and found what was enough to categorize exposure damage with secondhand smoke exposure. The study, published in the journal Thorax, reveals the dangerous effects a family of pesticides, called organophosphates, has on young, developing lungs. 

"Researchers have described breathing problems in agricultural workers who are exposed to these pesticides, but these new findings are about children who live in an agricultural area where the organophosphates are being used," said the study's senior author Brenda Eskenazi, a professor of epidemiology and of maternal and child health at the UC Berkeley, in a press release. "This is the first evidence suggesting that children exposed to organophosphates have poorer lung function."

For the study, researchers analyzed urine samples from 279 children with decreased lung function. The samples were collected five times throughout the children's lives, from the time they were 6 months old up until they turned 5 years old. Each time they measured the amount of organophosphate in their urine, the child had an average of 8 percent less air function for every tenfold increase of the pesticide. The decreased lung function is comparable to a child inhaling their mother's secondhand smoke.

What Are Organophosphates?

Included in the agricultural bug killer family, organophosphates are a type of pesticide that's been used for decades. Originally, it was developed for chemical warfare because of its effectiveness to paralyze muscles and (in large amounts) kill humans similar to bugs. Previous research has linked childhood organophostate exposure with brain tumors, leukemia and lymphomas, and birth defects. Linking chronic exposure to poor lung function is relatively new and may help stimulate further research, possibly laying the groundwork for children's protection in the future.

"The kids with higher pesticide exposure had lower breathing capacity," said study's lead author Rachel Raanan, who conducted the research while she was a postdoctoral scholar in Eskenazi's lab. "If the reduced lung function persists into adulthood, it could leave our participants at greater risk of developing respiratory problems like COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)."

Decreased lung function, especially early on in life, increases the risk of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). Researchers believe reducing environmental exposure of pesticides during childhood is key to protecting a child from impaired breathing capacity. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, COPD is a chronic inflammatory lung disease that causes airflow blockage and breathing-related problems for more than 15 million Americans. However, based on evidence of impaired lung function, experts believe it's closer to 24 million.

"This study adds exposure to organophosphate pesticides to the growing list of environmental exposures — including air pollution, indoor cook stove smoke and environmental tobacco smoke — that could be harmful to the developing lungs of children," Raanan said. "Given they are still used worldwide, we believe our findings deserve further attention."

Source: Raanan R, Eskenazi B, Balmes J, et al. Thorax. 2015.