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Publication: Association of activities related to pesticide exposure on headache severity and neurodevelopment of school-children in the rural agricultural farmlands of the Western Cape of South Africa

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In a study published in Environment International by Swiss TPH and partners at the University of Cape Town, researchers found that children in South Africa who engage in pesticide-related farm activities often have more headaches and possibly lower cognitive performance.

 Children and adolescents living in agricultural areas are likely to be exposed to a mixture of pesticides during their daily lives, which may impair their cognitive performance. The most vulnerable populations are the farmworkers and families in low- and middle-income countries.  

A new study by Swiss TPH and partners published in Environment International found that children in South Africa who engage in pesticide-related farm activities are at a higher risk for developing headaches and having a lower cognitive performance in relation to attention, memory and processing speed.  

“The effects of pesticide related activities of children have rarely been investigated, even though high doses of pesticides are proven to be neurotoxic,” said Martin Röösli, Head of the Environmental Exposures and Health Unit at Swiss TPH. “Our results are suggestive of long-term negative health effects amongst children, specifically those who eat crops off the field or pick crops from the field.”  

Stricter management of pesticides warranted  

The study looked at 1,001 school-aged children from three agricultural areas of South Africa, which is an upper to middle-income country that has the highest usage of pesticides in Sub-Saharan Africa. The results found consistent associations between pesticide exposure and headaches. These findings are novel since as it is one of the few studies to address specific activities such as being involved storage, burning or cleaning of pesticide containers resulting in pesticide exposure in this age group.  

The study used two standardised health outcome tools: a Headache Impact Test (HIT-6) and a neurocognitive assessment battery called the Cambridge Automated NeuroPsychological Battery (CANTAB), which consists of six tests across three cognitive domains: memory, attention and processing speed, which was administered on a tablet.  

“Based on our results and recent pesticide studies, we believe that a stricter control on management, storage, packaging and other processes after sales of pesticides is warranted,” said Röösli. “As these are children, our recommendation is to also implement an educational program on pesticide related activities in schools and to learn from interventions and their effectiveness.”    

About the study  

This project is imbedded within the South African-Swiss Bilateral SARChI Chair in Global Environmental Health of Professor Aqiel Dalvie (PhD), Centre for Environmental and Occupational Health Research, University of Cape Town and Professor Martin Röösli (PhD), Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute. This chair was formed in 2015 with funding sources from SA National Research Foundation (NRF) SARChI and the Swiss State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation. 

Shala Chetty-Mhlanga et al., “Association of Activities Related to Pesticide Exposure on Headache Severity and Neurodevelopment of School-Children in the Rural Agricultural Farmlands of the Western Cape of South Africa,” Environment International 146 (January 1, 2021): 106237.