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Daily News Blog

14
Mar

Implications for Human Health: Work-Related Pesticide Exposure Increases Sleep Disorder Risk

(Beyond Pesticides, March 14, 2023) A study published in Environmental Research and Public Health finds occupational pesticide exposure increases the risk of sleep disorders among farmworkers and pesticide applicators. Specifically, many pesticides, like organophosphates (OPs), are detrimental to neurological function through inhibition of the enzyme acetylcholinesterase (AChE) responsible for ending a neurotransmission event after relaying the necessary information. Without an end to neurotransmission events, individuals experience a buildup of acetylcholine, resulting in convulsions, headaches, weakness, impacts on bodily senses, and other cognitive/mental changes. In addition to illnesses from chemical exposure, inadequate sleep has links to several chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and depression. Therefore, given research links to sleep-related disorders and bodily functions, including endocrine, metabolic, neurological, and cognitive disorders, studies like this can help government and health officials identify how pesticides’ impact on the brain elevates health concerns. The study notes, “The study’s findings can be used to create strategies for addressing mental health issues and promoting mental health and quality of life.”

Researchers assess the sleep patterns among individuals living in southeast Spain, near the coast of Almeria, where chemical-intensive agriculture from greenhouses is prevalent. Of the 380 participants in the study, 189 were greenhouse workers, while 191 were control subjects. Using the Oviedo Sleep Questionnaire in Spanish, the researchers collected data on sleep patterns and disturbances during the annual occupation health survey assessment. The risk of insomnia is significantly higher among agricultural workers than in the control group, especially for those without proper personal protective equipment (PPE) like gloves or masks. Among pesticide applicators, like gardeners and landscapers, insomnia risk occurs in those who do not wear goggles or masks. Therefore, the risk of sleep disorders increases with occupational pesticide exposure.

Numerous occupational hazards are associated with chemical exposure, especially among individuals with occupations that involve regular exposure to xenobiotic (foreign substance) compounds. The agricultural sector has a long-standing history of synthetic chemical use, which disproportionally affects farmworkers‘ health. Furthermore, farmworkers’ children are at greater risk as their immune system response is immature and especially vulnerable to stressors from pesticide exposure. Synthetic chemicals in pesticides can accumulate in bodies, causing an amalgamation of health effects. These effects can range from heightened risks of various cancers (e.g., prostate, hepatic, liver, etc.) and endocrine disruption to mental health problems (e.g., depression), respiratory illnesses (asthma), and many other pesticide-induced diseases. However, pesticide exposure is ubiquitous and not only confined to where it is applied. Pesticides and other toxic chemicals can enter homes from the workplace via clothes, shoes, and home-based personal protective equipment (PPE) and accumulate residues on laundry, on carpets, and in art/house dust. Some cases demonstrate that levels of chemicals transported into the house can be high enough to cause an adverse health effect in a resident child or spouse. Although pesticide exposure through the skin or inhalation is most prevalent among individuals working around these toxic chemicals, the general population also experiences pesticide exposure through residues in food and water resources. Therefore, 90 percent of Americans have at least one pesticide compound in their body. These pollutants have a global distribution, with evaporation and precipitation facilitating long-range atmospheric transport, deposition, and bioaccumulation of hazardous chemicals in the environment. Many of these chemical compounds remain in soils, water (solid and liquid), and the surrounding air at levels exceeding U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards. The increasing ubiquity of pesticides concerns public health advocates as current measures safeguarding against pesticide use do not adequately detect and assess total environmental chemical contaminants. Therefore, individuals will continuously encounter varying concentrations of pesticides and other toxic chemicals, adding to the body’s burden of those toxic chemicals currently in use.

This study adds to global research supporting the link between pesticide exposure and sleep disorders, yet this is the first study in Spain to analyze the prevalence of pesticide-induced sleep disorders among those working with or around these chemicals. Exposure to medium and high levels of pesticides results in shortened sleep duration, poorer sleep quality, and insomnia. Therefore, pesticides can interrupt normal non-rapid eye movement (NREM) and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep patterns. REM sleep is active, meaning more brain activity takes place (e.g., dreaming) compared to NREM sleep, which can be the beginning of sleep, light sleep, or deep sleep. REM and NREM sleep play an important role in childhood development, learning/memory, and immune system support. Thus, pesticide exposure interrupts these processes leading to further health issues. For example, REM sleep disorder can be a precursor to neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s disease and types of dementia. Studies have shown that more than 50 to 80 percent of people with REM sleep behavior disorder go on to develop a neurodegenerative disorder year later or even decades. Besides the neurotoxicity of pesticides, these toxic chemicals also can function as an endocrine disruptor that affects hormone function, including melatonin responsible for sleep. The study highlights the significance of PPE as a premier way to mitigate chemical exposure resulting in sleep disorders. However, replacing toxic, conventional, synthetic pesticides with organic pesticides can reduce the risk of sleep disorders, regardless of PPE.

The researchers conclude, “The use of PPE and adherence to safe practices during the handling of pesticides in agricultural activities can reduce the total exposure to pesticides and thus avoid the negative effect of pesticides on health and the occurrence of some disorders, such as sleep disorders.”

Humans spend approximately one-third of their life sleeping, and some animals even more so, signifying how important sleep is for normal bodily function, health, and well-being. Various pesticide products act similarly or in conjunction with other chemical substances, simultaneously resulting in more severe health outcomes. Therefore, advocates urge that policies enforce stricter pesticide regulations and increase research on the long-term impacts of pesticide exposure. Beyond Pesticides tracks the most recent studies related to pesticide exposure through our Pesticide-Induced Diseases Database (PIDD). This database supports the clear need for strategic action to shift from pesticide dependency. For more information on the multiple harms that pesticides can cause, see PIDD pages on Brain and Nervous System DisordersLearning/Developmental DisordersEndocrine DisruptionBody Burdens, and other diseases.

Beyond Pesticides advocates for a precautionary approach to pest management in land management and agriculture by transiting to organicBuyinggrowing, and supporting organic can help eliminate the extensive use of pesticides in the environment and from your diet. For more information on how organic is the right choice for consumers and the farmworkers who grow our food, see the Beyond Pesticides webpage, Health Benefits of Organic Agriculture

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

Source: Environmental Research and Public Health

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