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Daily News Blog

03
Sep

Work-Related Exposure to Pollutants Increases the Risk of Developing Heart Defects in among Hispanic/Latinx Communities

(Beyond Pesticides, September 3, 2020) Occupational exposure to pollutants including, those from wood burning, pesticides, metals, and vehicle combustion, increases the risk of developing heart abnormalities among Latinx individuals, according to new research published in the Journal of the American Heart Association. Although previous research focuses on the impact of pollutants on human health from occupational or residential exposure, this study highlights the risk chemical exposure can have on communities, especially for those underrepresented in conventional occupational health studies, such as those with Hispanic or Latinx backgrounds. People of color communities are already at greater risk of exposure to environmental and health harms, such as pesticide pollution, which has been identified as environmental racism. Additionally, not only are people of color at risk of developing various, serious health issues associated with additional or cumulative pesticide exposure, they disproportionately face an elevated risk from Covid-19 as essential workers or family members of those workers.

According to the researchers, “The objective of this study was to assess the relationship between occupational exposure to hazardous substances and cardiac structure and function in Hispanic/Latino participants in ECHO‐SOL (Echocardiographic Study of Latinos).” It is significant as it highlights the regular/routine exposure to environmental pollutants, including pollution from pesticide use, that threatens the health of vulnerable communities. Jean Claude Uwamungu, M.D., study co-lead author study, states, “These findings support the notion that where people live and work affects cardiovascular health. Policies and interventions to protect the environment and safeguard workers’ health could reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease such as heart failure, especially among low-income occupations that have higher exposure to these harmful pollutants.”

Cardiovascular (heart) disease (CVD) is one of the leading causes of death in the U.S., with approximately 700,000 people dying annually of heart diseases, equating to 25% of all U.S. deaths. Additionally, heart conditions are one leading cause of disability in the U.S. Research has shown that environmental pollutant exposure can increase the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, including stroke, heart attack, heart failure, atrial fibrillation, and cardiac arrest. Many epidemiological studies focus on ambient pollutant impact on CVD, such as exposure to ambient air pollution at the location of the primary residence. However, most individuals experience exposure to pollutants in the workplace. Although federal regulations and agencies like Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) are charged with protecting workers from occupational hazards, including exposure to hazardous chemicals, these risks associated with CVD are less studied and reflected in policies and practices that disproportionately affect low-income individuals. While the studies finds that CVD disproportionately affects people of color, pesticide exposure overall affects a large portion of the population, and the intermediate relationship between CVD and pesticides is studied less.

To assess cardiac function related to occupational chemical exposure, researchers used a population‐based cohort study consisting of 782 participants, both men, and women, who self‐identified Hispanic/Latinx. The study’s researchers used sampling methods presented by previous research in the Hispanic Community Health Study/Study of Latinos (HCSL/SOL). Participants ranged from ages 18 to 74 years, living in four cities in the U.S.: Bronx, NY; Chicago, IL; Miami, FL; and San Diego, CA. In their review, researchers assess chemical exposure of employed individuals through a questionnaire detailing participants’ sociodemographic and lifestyle characteristics, reporting any occupational exposure to chemicals at the current and longest‐held job, including burning wood, vehicle exhaust, solvents, pesticides, and metals. Additionally, researchers aimed to assess the relationship between heart structure and function from echocardiograph screenings for each participant using survey multivariable linear regression analyses.

Overall, the results of the study show that exposure to burning wood, vehicle exhaust, pesticides, and metals is associated with abnormal heart function and structure, especially for participants working their jobs for many years (average of 18 years). Of all occupational chemical exposures present in the study, work-related vehicle exhaust has the most reports of exposure. Echocardiographs show occupational exposure to vehicle exhaust is associated with a reduction in the heart’s ability to pump, decreasing the right ventricular systolic function and left ventricular longitudinal strain for expansion and contraction of heart muscles. Occupational exposure to wood burning is associated with a decrease in the left ventricles’ ability to pump blood by 3.1%. Work-related pesticide exposure is associated with an alteration in left ventricular longitudinal strain function, as did exposure to metals, decreasing the heart’s ability to contract normally. Additionally, researchers link occupational exposure to metals to an increase in left ventricular muscle mass, a risk factor for heart disease.

The concern over chemical exposure from environmental pollutants and human health is hardly a new issue, as a plethora of studies demonstrates the risks associated with toxic chemical exposure. Specific concerns arise over occupational exposure as exposure to chemicals like pesticides is unavoidable for some occupations. Typically, agricultural or industrial professions see the highest levels of pesticide exposure, including pesticide applicators, landscapers, forestry and agricultural workers, factory workers, pesticide manufacturing employees, aircraft mechanics, and jet fuel refinery employees.

This research adds to the body of science that finds that occupational exposure to high levels of pesticides can increase risks for cardiovascular diseases, such as coronary heart disease or stroke. A 2020 research paper finds that greater exposure to pyrethroid insecticides is associated with higher risks of death from all causes and cardiovascular disease. Pyrethroids, like many other synthetic insecticides, are highly neurotoxic, notably upon inhalation, ingestion, and absorption through the skin. Various studies link pyrethroids to endocrine disruption, immune system suppression, respiratory and reproductive disorders, and cancer. Furthermore, workers who experience high-level chemical exposures may not experience adverse health effects for years afterward, with the most severe effects commencing decades after chemical exposure. Past research from the Institute of Medicine (IOM) finds evidence that exposure to Agent Orange and other herbicides used during the Vietnam War, over 45-70 years ago, is associated with an increased chance of developing ischemic heart disease and Parkinson’s disease.

With cardiovascular disease becoming increasingly prevalent and the leading cause of death in the U.S. in 2020, the risk that pesticide exposure plays in disease development is vital to policy restrictions that take into account the variance that racial equity and socioeconomic status play in the disproportionate health impacts on vulnerable communities. “Unfortunately, people of color that live in low-income neighborhoods bear the brunt of poor environmental policy and suffer from environmental racism,” states the Black Institute in New York City in their report Poison Parks (2020). Additionally, individuals working occupations like farmworkers and landscapers are at disproportionate risk of pesticide poisoning.

According to Farmworker Justice, 76% of all farmworkers identify as Latino/Hispanic. Farmworkers lack adequate workplace protection under the laws of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Health and Safety Administration (OSHA). Instead, worker protection regulations overseen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have been cited as providing inadequate workplace protections and enforcement under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act—another example of the institutional racism associated with the protection of people of color that advocates have identified. With the average life expectancy for farmworkers being 49 years old, compared to 78 for the general population, advocates have called on government to enhance current protection protocols to prevent premature death associated with occupational pesticide exposure. 

The results of this study reinforce findings from previous studies supporting pesticide exposure’s association with an increase in coronary heart disease and atrial fibrillation prevalence. Additionally, pollutants putting people at risk are from wood-burning and pesticides as exposure to these chemicals can extend far beyond burning areas and agricultural fields where they are used.

Although this study reveals the associations with, rather than causes of, changes in heart structure and function, these important results contain data relevant to public health and potential heart damage linked to long-term occupational exposure to these pollutants. Dr. Uwamungu suggests reducing both occupational and environmental chemical exposure to decrease the risk of developing heart failure and other heart disorders, “Health care professionals should routinely ask patients about exposure to pollutants at work to guide prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of early stages of heart disease.”

Studies related to pesticides and heart disorders can aid in future heart health research to understand the underlying mechanisms that cause heart functional or structural changes. With the Trump administration dismantling many environmental regulations, it is vital to understand how exposure to environmental pollutants like pesticides can increase the risk of developing chronic disease, especially if theses regulatory rollbacks increase the persistence of environmental pollutants. Stand up for vulnerable communities but telling your congressional representative and senators that EPA must protect farmworkers from toxic pesticide exposure and donate to the Black Institute—a leader in advancing organic land management legislation in New York City that bans toxic pesticides. 

Beyond Pesticides tracks the most recent news and studies related to pesticides through the Daily News Blog and Pesticide Induced Diseases Database (PIDD). This database supports the clear need for strategic action to shift away from pesticide dependency. Additionally, buyinggrowing, and supporting organic can help eliminate the extensive use of pesticides in agriculture and the environment. Organic agriculture has many health and environmental benefits, which curtail the need for chemical-intensive agricultural practices. For more information on how organic is the right choice for both consumers and the farmworkers who grow our food, see Beyond Pesticides webpage, Health Benefits of Organic Agriculture

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

Source: Science Daily, Journal of the American Heart Association

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