Research has found that babies exposed to certain pesticides whilst in the womb grow up to have poor lung function…

It is sprayed on our food and used around our neighbourhoods, but study after study is pointing to pesticides as a health concern.

The latest study found that babies exposed to higher levels of organochlorine compounds in the womb go on to have worse lung function in childhood.

These compounds, which include the pesticide DDT, as well as electrical insulators and other industrial products, are now banned in most parts of the world. However, because they degrade very slowly, they are still present in the environment and in foods.

Chemicals impact on children’s health

Previous research has suggested links between exposure to these chemicals in the womb and parents reporting childhood respiratory diseases such as wheezing, asthma, and chest infections.

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The new study is the first to show a link with objective measures of lung strength and capacity in relation to low-level exposure to these chemicals.

“We already have evidence that exposure to environmental chemicals including organochlorine compounds can have an impact on children’s health,” says Dr Maribel Casas, assistant research professor at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal),

“Even though this group of chemicals were banned in the 1970s, low but detectable levels are still present in pregnant women and in children. That means that current populations and future generations are still exposed to these compounds.”

Organochlorine compounds are thought to disrupt the hormone system and have been linked to a wide range of conditions including cardiovascular disorders, cancers and low birth-weight babies.

The main source of exposure is through the foods we eat but foetuses and newborns can be exposed via the placenta and breastfeeding.

To reduce exposure to these chemicals, women of reproductive age can try to moderate consumption of foods with high levels of organochlorine compounds, such as fatty meats and oily fish – Dr Maribel Casas

Over 1 000 babies studied

Dr Casas and her colleagues studied 1 308 babies who were born in the Valencia, Gipuzkoa, and Sabadell regions of Spain between 2004 and 2008.

Researchers measured the levels of seven different organochlorine compounds in the pregnant mother’s blood or in blood taken from the umbilical cord.

As the children grew older, they were asked to take part in tests to measure their lung function at the age of four years, and again at seven years using a spirometer to measure children’s lung volume and check for any signs of obstruction in the airways.

The researchers found that levels of DDE – a chemical formed when DDT breaks down – were linked with poorer lung function in children at both four and seven years old. Exposure to maternal concentrations of DDE between 0,23 and 0,50 nanograms per millilitre was associated with a 50-millilitre reduction in how much air children could blow out in one second (FEV1). Among those in the study, the average (median) level of DDE was 0,28 nanograms per millilitre.

“A reduction of this size in the amount of air a child can blow out would not be considered clinically relevant for a healthy child, but these smaller changes are highly relevant at population level and can be important in children with respiratory conditions,” explains Dr Casas.

Common weedkillers and pesticides aren’t safe

How can we avoid these chemicals?

“To reduce exposure to these chemicals, women of reproductive age can try to moderate consumption of foods with high levels of organochlorine compounds, such as fatty meats and oily fish.

“We know that this group of chemicals can interfere with the body’s hormone system and we also know that hormone receptors play an important role in foetal development of the lungs, so this could be the mechanism for a link.”

Source: European Lung Foundation via

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