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Common herbicides linked to diminished brain functioning in young adults

In a world that continually strives for efficient agricultural production, the use of herbicides has become commonplace. However, a recent study has exposed the potential dangers associated with the use of certain herbicides, particularly their impact on the brain function of adolescents.

Herbicides and brain health

Scientists from the Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health and Human Longevity Science at the University of California San Diego have discovered alarming associations between exposure to popular herbicides and diminished brain function in adolescents. Their research highlights the presence of herbicides in various environments and the corresponding risks they pose to young individuals.

The study focused on metabolite concentrations of widely used herbicides — glyphosate and 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) — and the insect repellent DEET in adolescents. These substances were found in urine samples of individuals aged 11 to 17, living in the agriculturally intensive region of Pedro Moncayo, Ecuador.

Several critical issues with herbicides

The research, led by senior author Dr. Jose Ricardo Suarez, underlines several critical findings. Notably, glyphosate, a nonselective herbicide integral to numerous crops and residential vegetation control, was found in 98 percent of the participants. Simultaneously, 2,4-D, known for its broadleaf weed control in various settings, was detected in 66 percent of individuals.

The presence of these chemicals is not benign. Higher concentrations of 2,4-D corresponded with lower neurobehavioral performance across several domains, including attention, inhibitory control, memory, learning, and language skills. Glyphosate‘s impact appeared somewhat less broad, significantly affecting only social perception, while DEET metabolites showed no association with neurobehavioral performance.

The implications of these findings are substantial, considering the global reliance on these herbicides following the introduction of genetically modified, herbicide-resistant crops.

Mental health concerns from herbicides

Dr. Briana Chronister, the study’s first author, emphasizes the herbicides’ prevalence in agricultural industries worldwide, outlining the exposure risks for both children and adults, particularly in agricultural communities. Alarmingly, there is still much unknown about how these chemicals affect life stages.

The study resonates with growing global health concerns, as 20 percent of adolescents and 26 percent of young adults now face diagnosable mental health conditions. The distressing rise in issues such as anxiety, depression, and learning disorders over the past two decades highlights the urgent need to understand environmental neurotoxicants’ roles in this trend.

Comprehensive research and regulation needed

With 2,4-D negatively impacting all assessed neurobehavioral areas and glyphosate significantly affecting social perception, the study underscores an urgent call for more extensive research on the chemicals we release into our environment.

Dr. Suarez points out the shocking reality: every year, hundreds of new chemicals enter the market, with over 80,000 currently registered for use, and yet, there is minimal understanding of their long-term human impact. This knowledge gap suggests potential oversight in the regulatory practices surrounding chemical approval and use.

The research is a crucial part of ESPINA, a study focused on understanding pesticide exposures’ effect on human development from childhood through adulthood. As the team moves into the 15th year of follow-up, there is a planned evaluation to determine if these associations persist as the participants transition into early adulthood.

This disturbing study is a wake-up call. The findings serve as a stark reminder of the unseen dangers lurking in our environment, particularly in practices considered standard in industries such as agriculture.

The evidence linking common herbicides to developmental issues in adolescents highlights the need for immediate action. This action involves not only further scientific research but also a comprehensive re-evaluation of regulatory standards governing chemical use. The safety and well-being of future generations may very well depend on such proactive measures.

The study is published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

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