Chemical Consequences

Here’s a story about an odd benefit of global warming (at least in terms of local people’s health): A five-year drought in Mexico has brought an end to farming for many people, replacing heavy use of agricultural chemicals with ranching.

A professor"s study shows that chemical-intensive farming has consequences for children"s health.© Photos to Go

Anthropologist Elizabeth Guillette found a community of farmers in the Yaqui Valley of Mexico that was divided by geography and culture when commercial farming came to town in the 1950s. Farmers living in the lower lands of the valley adopted modern techniques, including the use of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, while their counterparts living on the mountainside continued farming in the manner that had sustained their community for generations, without commercial chemicals. Guillette, through the University of Florida, has been studying families from both communities since 1967.

Guillette found that children of farmers who use multiple synthetic chemicals produced less-detailed and less-accurate drawings than those raised by indigenous farmers who use natural, sustainable agricultural practices.

When Guillette had four- and five-year-old children draw pictures of people, the children who had been closely exposed to the use of chemicals created images of lines and circles, limbs sometimes depicted within torsos, and facial features distorted so that the pictures were barely reminiscent of their own bodies. The children from the mountainside community, who had not been exposed to regular chemical use, created images that were much more advanced than their counterparts, with limbs, features and expressions clearly representative of people. The same test a few years later yielded a similar disparity in drawing ability.

Other deficits in the exposed children included poor memory and problem-solving skills, lack of physical stamina in exercise and play, a three-fold increase in illnesses and allergies, and a tendency to play alone rather than in groups. "There was a lot of failure to look me in the eye," says Guillette, whose work has been published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. "You don’t see the imaginative and creative play that you see up in the foothills."

Guillette also adds, "It has to be stressed that these kids I worked with are regarded as healthy, normal children. It’s really only with this in-depth evaluating that these deficits show up."

As the children reached puberty, Guillette tested their hormonal development, and discovered a significant lessening of mammary tissue in the girls exposed to pesticides. "Without mammary tissue, breast feeding becomes impossible, which is a necessity to women in developing countries," she says.

Guillette’s research results have dire implications that go far beyond Mexican mountain communities. Publicized widely in Canada, many cities there have enacted bans on the unnecessary use of chemicals in public places, yet there’s been little impact on American regulations. "Getting scientific knowledge to the general public is very difficult," Guillette says. In 2003, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found an average of 167 pollutants in the bodies of test subjects, including 56 carcinogens. In 2005, the EWG discovered an average of 200 chemical and pesticide contaminants in the placental cord blood of newborn infants.

"The studies of pesticides and other contaminants that are very common, such as mercury, lead and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), show that all are decreasing IQ levels," says Guillette.

"It’s been projected that if IQ decreases just five points across a community, you lose roughly two-thirds of your geniuses, and increase the number of children who are mentally retarded by two-thirds. This has huge consequences in terms of education, care and medical needs. Also, it’s the children of today who are going to be responsible for our communities, nation and world tomorrow. If we lose them, what are we going to do?" asks Guillette.