media release

Study: Pesticides may affect pregnancy length and birth weight

April 05, 2012

Bruce Lanphear, SFU health sciences, 778.387.3939,
Dixon Tam, SFU media relations, 778.782.8742,

A new study by a Simon Fraser University researcher says exposure of pregnant women to organophosphate (OP) pesticides – a widely used class of pesticides in North American agriculture – may affect both length of pregnancy and birth weight.

“For an individual child, a decrement of 150-gram reduction in birth weight is of little consequence, but this is just one of many risk factors that a pregnant woman might encounter. If a woman has four or five risk factors, the impact can be substantial,” explains the study’s senior author, SFU health sciences professor Bruce Lanphear.

“The decrement in birth weight that we found for OP pesticide exposure was comparable with the decrement seen for women who smoke cigarettes.”

Environmental Health Perspectives published the paper, Associations of PrenatalExposure to Organophosphate Pesticide Metabolites, online today. The paper’s authors say the study population of 306 women in Cincinnati, Ohio, is representative of the type of exposures most North American women and their children experience. Although the use of OPs in Canada and the U.S. has declined in recent years, exposures remain widespread.

If confirmed, the paper’s findings have important implications for public health. For example, a half-week reduction in gestational age for children would have a substantial impact on IQ, pre-term birth, and respiratory problems in a population like Canada. These findings add to growing evidence about the harmful effects of low-level exposures to environmental toxicants.

“If these results are confirmed, they would help to identify OP pesticides as an important risk factor for babies being born too early or small,” Lanphear says. “If so, it would offer us the opportunity to reduce problems encountered by many children who are born small or pre-term, such as respiratory infections, asthma, learning and behavioural problems.”

There are several things expectant mothers can do to reduce their exposures to OP pesticides.

“First, they can eat organic foods. If they cannot afford to purchase organic foods, they can selectively purchase organic fruits and vegetables that are most heavily contaminated with pesticides,” says Lanphear. “If they cannot afford organic fruits and vegetables, they should wash them carefully. Finally, families can stop using pesticides in and around their homes and advocate to ban cosmetic pesticides in their province.”

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