Children of Flower Workers Show Effects of Secondary Pesticide Exposures

Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–April 13, 2012.  A study has found that the children of flower plantation workers in Ecuador are neurologically affecxted by the pesticide residues that their parents unwittingly carry home on their clothes, tools, and skin. The study documents significantly reduced activity for the essential enzyme acetycholinesterase (AChE) in children whose parents work on flower plantations compared to others whose parents do not. The two main classes of pesticides that the researchers identify as used in the region’s flower production, organophosphates and carbamates, are known to suppress the enzyme’s activity. AChE activity is crucial to healthy neurological functioning in humans and its suppression during childhood can hinder nervous system and cognitive development causing immediate and long-term impairment.

In the study, Lower acetylcholinesterase activity among children living with flower plantation workers (Environ Res. 2012 Apr;114:53-9. Epub 2012 Mar 10), children whose parents work on a flower plantation are more than three times more likely to be in the group of lowest AChE activity. Additionally, the children who live the longest with a flower plantation worker are four times more likely to have lower enzyme activity than children who never live with a plantation worker. The researchers obtained their results by sampling AChE activity levels in 277 children between ages 4 and 9 from the Pedro Moncayo region of Ecuador where plantation flower production is concentrated. Plantation workers are routinely exposed to pesticides during and/or after application to the flowers and often return home without showering or changing clothes. The researchers accounted for age, gender, pesticide use within the household, and other factors that might skew the results.

The health risks of secondary pesticide exposure faced by the families of flower plantation workers are in addition to the documented damage caused by direct contact to such materials. Poisonings from direct exposure to organophosphates and carbamates are linked to 71 percent of the 14,145 pesticide poisonings reported in Ecuador between 2001 and 2007.

Now mostly used in agricultural applications, organophosphate and carbamate compounds remain among the most heavily used pesticides in the United States. Exposure to organophosphate insecticides, such as chlorpyrifos is linked to numerous learning and development disorders, including Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and autism. Widely-used insecticides in the carbamate family include aldicarb and carbaryl. Both classes of pesticides affect pests and non-target organisms, including humans and other vertebrates, through a similar mode of action. Acetylcholine is an essential neuro-transmitter that relays signals from the brain throughout the nervous system and under normal conditions it is broken down by AChE after each signal is sent. Pesticides that suppress AChE activity inhibit the necessary breakdown of acetylcholine and prevent the healthy feedback needed for the nervous system to function properly. Poisoning from such pesticides may cause sensory and behavioral disturbances, incoordination, headache, dizziness, restlessness, anxiety, depressed motor function, and seizures. Severe intoxication may result in psychosis, seizures, and coma.

Several Latin American countries have in recent years promoted exports of fresh cut flowers to the United States and Ecuador alone supplies 23% of the American market. Consumers who are turning to organic and fair trade options for their food purchases are finding that many similar options exist for buying fresh cut flowers. Sources for organic and fair trade floral products include:
Organic Bouquet
California Organic Flowers
Local Harvest
The Fifty Mile Bouquet

Sources: Environmental Health News,

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.