Babies exposed to high levels of pesticides while in the womb may suffer from learning problems, a new study suggests.
The study focused on a chemical called permethrin, one of the pyrethroid pesticides, commonly used in agriculture and to kill termites, fleas and household bugs, says lead author Megan Horton of the Columbia Center for Children's Environmental Health.
Most of the pregnant women in this New York-based study were exposed by spraying for cockroaches.
Permethrin — among the most commonly detected pesticides in homes — is being used more often today as older organophosphorous pesticides are phased out because of concerns that they harm brain development, says Horton, whose study is being published today in Pediatrics.
Researchers measured 348 pregnant women's exposures by asking them to wear backpack air monitors, Horton says. Researchers followed the women and their children for three years.
Children exposed to the highest pesticide levels before birth were three times as likely to have a mental delay compared to children with lower levels, the study says.
Children with the highest prenatal exposures also scored about 4 points lower on an intelligence test, the Bayley Mental Developmental Index. That test has a mean score of 100, with most people's scores falling within 15 points of that range.
That's about the same intelligence loss caused by lead, says Philip Landrigan, a pediatrics professor and environmental health expert at New York's Mount Sinai School of Medicine.
Pyrethroid pesticides kill bugs by "being toxic to the developing brain," Landrigan says. The results are "very believable and should be taken seriously," Landrigan says.
Because the study is the first to link permethrin with brain damage, researchers need to conduct additional studies before concluding that the pesticide really harms the brain, says Mary Fox, an assistant professor at John Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Even without definitive data, however, Fox says it makes sense for pregnant women to reduce their exposure to bug sprays and other pesticides.
To control bugs, for example, she suggests fixing water leaks, keeping food tightly covered and, if necessary, spraying outside instead of inside the home.