Unintentional poisoning

Illustration of poisoned grain and baby

Anne Riederer, a researcher in Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health, studies the effects of pesticides and other chemicals on the environment.

Currently, she is heading a study in Thailand to assess pesticide exposure by testing levels that are found in breast milk. The participants are women in Chiang Mai, a rural area in the northwestern corner of Thailand dotted by citrus farms. Farmers typically spray citrus crops with pesticides 20 to 30 times a year, and many women work on these farms, even during pregnancy.

While Thailand does have some regulations for pesticide use, they are not strictly enforced, says Riederer. Take, for example, the use of acutely toxic organosphosphate pesticide. In the United States, many organophosphates can be used only by farmers and workers who are certified on proper handling, which calls for, among other preventive measures, the wearing of protective clothing. In Thailand, such requirements are absent, or they are followed inconsistently.

As a result, accidental pesticide poisoning is common. Doctors at Fang Hospital, a government-run facility in Chiang Mai, report seeing cases of pesticide poisoning regularly.

Riederer hopes to develop a better method for measuring the newer generation of pesticides in breast milk. Currently, individual tests must be given for each of four classes of pesticides. The goal is to develop one test that would work for all four classes.

If pesticides are found in breast milk, Riederer plans to expand the study to include infants to see how they are exposed, through diet or the environment. —Kay Torrance

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