Published June 19, 2014
The Nile Delta region of Egypt is primarily an agricultural community, with cotton being a major crop. To ensure that the cotton is of high quality, the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture monitors the crop throughout the season, including the application of pesticides by government workers.
As in other developing countries, workers in Egypt walk through the cotton fields and apply the pesticides from backpack sprayers. The primary pesticide applied is an organo-phosphorus pesticide that is widely used around the world and is also a known neurotoxin. Workers seldom use safety equipment to protect themselves from exposure to the chemicals.
Among those expressing concern about the adverse health effects for community members and agricultural workers in these farming communities were UB faculty members James Olson and Matthew Bonner.
In June 2008, Olson, UB Distinguished Professor in the departments of Pharmacology and Toxicology, and Epidemiology and Environmental Health, and Bonner, associate professor of epidemiology and environmental health, joined an interdisciplinary team of investigators to conduct a four-year study of pesticide workers in Egypt.
The team was led by Kent Anger and Pam Lein of Oregon Health & Science University, as well as scientists from Menoufia University in Egypt and the University of Washington.
The goal of the study, funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), was to measure exposure to pesticides in agricultural workers and to identify ways to reduce these exposures.
Working with a team of Egyptian researchers, the scientists set out to establish a research laboratory at Menoufia University to characterize inhalation and dermal exposure to pesticides, and assess potential deficits in cognitive performance. The study found higher exposure to pesticides through absorption through the skin in agricultural workers compared to non-agricultural workers.
These findings were communicated to the Ministry of Agriculture and the workers, and strategies were offered to reduce exposure to pesticides.
A second project, funded by NIEHS and the Fogarty International Center, offered an opportunity to expand this collaboration. Working with Diane Rohlman of the University of Iowa and a team of Egyptian collaborators, Olson and Bonner examined occupational and environmental exposure to pesticides in adolescents, focusing on defining the change in exposure across the application season.
Tracking exposure before, during and after the application season revealed that pesticide exposures increased during the application season and declined once application ended. This pattern was found in adolescents working as applicators, as well as those living in the community, demonstrating both occupational and environmental exposure.
Investigators received additional funding from NIEHS and the Fogarty International Center in 2013 to continue following adolescents living and working in agricultural communities, and evaluate methods to reduce exposure.
An important aspect of the project involves building capacity at Menoufia University and supporting the Egyptian scientists so that this research to be conducted at a local level. Work such as the pesticide project builds international partnerships and provides opportunities to address public health issues that are a concern worldwide, researchers say.
While all field research projects face challenges, the volatile political situation in Egypt added another dimension to the pesticide project. Travel became difficult for both the Egyptian and U.S. researchers, and an alternative solution had to be found.
To overcome the difficulty of travel to and from Egypt, a workshop for the research team was organized in December 2013 in Dubai. Ten members of the team participated in the session, which was designed to facilitate one-on-one training with the field research staff, as well as provide an opportunity to plan future research and training activities. Participants say the most successful outcome of the workshop may have been the strengthened working relationship among members of the research team.
Agricultural workers around the world are at risk of exposure to pesticides, with limited resources and occupational and environmental conditions all contributing to the problem. Understanding exposure during agricultural activities and the impact on health, researchers say, will allow them to develop effective interventions to reduce exposure and protect the health of both workers and members of agricultural communities.