Scientists study the health risks of poverty.
Thursday, December 28, 2000
Jesus Lopez''s eyes flash with indignation as he describes the difficulty of proving that it''s not just farmworkers who are at risk for pesticide exposure. A community worker who has worked for California Rural Legal Assistance for 11 years, Lopez believes that farmworkers'' family members can also be harmed by agricultural pesticides. If just one person comes home with contaminated clothes, he speculates, everyone else''s clothes can be contaminated when all the laundry is put together. But "how are you going to prove that?" he asks. "There''s no way to prove it''s pesticide exposure."
Lopez may soon get at least part of the proof he''s looking for. In 1998, scientists at the University of California, Berkeley began a multi-year study of children''s exposures to environmental pollutants, including pollens, molds, dusts and pesticides.
The Berkeley study is known as CHAMACOS, which means "kids" in Mexican Spanish and is the acronym for Center for the Health Assessment of Mothers and Children of Salinas. It targets those most at risk of harmful exposure in the Salinas Valley--low-income women and their children.
The study is one of eight that make up a nationwide program called the Children''s Environmental Health Initiative. Announced by Vice President Al Gore in 1997, the initiative acknowledges the special risks that environmental pollutants can pose to children.
"Children are not little adults," explains Brenda Eskenazi, the UC Berkeley professor who is directing the study. She notes that most occupational safety standards are based on adult tolerances, but children breathe faster, metabolize things more quickly and eat differently. While a number of studies on animals suggest that exposure to pesticides may have an impact on a child''s development, notes Eskenazi, no one until now has studied what actually happens to children when they are exposed to pesticides and other environmental contaminants, whether naturally occurring or not.
Five of the studies are looking at urban environments, including a study of childhood asthma and respiratory disease in Los Angeles'' African-American and Hispanic populations. Eskenazi explains that the Berkeley team chose to study an agricultural area because California is one of the leading agriculture states in the nation. She says the team felt that it should study an agriculture-related population if it was "to serve our state."
The CHAMACOS study is following 530 women through pregnancy and the first two years of their children''s lives. It will produce an unprecedented set of data concerning what environmental elements the mothers and babies carry in their bodies, the sources of these elements, and which elements may be harmful to a baby''s development during both the pre- and post-natal periods. The study will chart babies'' neurodevelopment, growth, and respiratory symptoms and disease.
The study involves taking blood and urine samples from the mothers during and after pregnancy and taking breast milk samples after delivery. Additionally, members of the study''s Salinas field staff (20 people in all) go to each participant''s home multiple times in order to assess their home environment, including taking dust and mold samples, and noting anything special about the home site, such as whether it''s close to a freeway, gas station, or golf course. Mothers are also asked an extensive set of questions concerning their work environment (if they work) and about the occupations of others living in the same dwelling.
Infants themselves will be studied until age two. This includes taking blood and urine samples as well as conducting developmental assessments. Study coordinator Selena Jaramillo says the infants of the first participants to enroll in the study are just now starting to turn 1 year old.
"The ultimate goal is to improve children''s health by identifying the sources of risks," she says. Jaramillo emphasizes that environmental risks for Salinas Valley''s low-income families are not restricted to the agriculture industry. Other industries, such as the landscaping industry, also use large quantities of pesticides, she says, and socioeconomic factors like education and income are primary factors in placing any family at risk for exposure to environmental pollutants.
Poorly educated and illiterate populations, she explains, sometimes don''t understand that a pesticide sold in a supermarket could be dangerous because they don''t believe that American stores would sell anything that could be a health hazard. For purely economic reasons, others end up living in filthy or crowded conditions, or living close to a highway or next to a parking lot for diesel-burning school buses, both of which may put children and adults at a higher risk for developing asthma.
Jaramillo notes that community participation will be key to any future risk abatement programs, just as community participation has been important in designing and carrying out the study. Because large portions of the study''s target population either are illegal immigrants or live in illegal housing situations, she explains, participants probably would not have come forward without the help of CHAMACOS'' local partner organizations, including South County Outreach Effort (SCORE), Clinica de Salud del Valle de Salinas, and others such as California Rural Legal Assistance.
For Jesus Lopez, the study results cannot come soon enough. "Just listen to the Spanish radio stations and you''ll hear lots of advertisements for people either advertising a garage for rent or looking for one to live in," says Lopez. In an informal survey he conducted in Soledad a few years ago, he says he found that some 2,600 of the town''s 10,000 residents were living in garages. "From there you can imagine the conditions they live in," he says.