A federal ban on home use of two insecticides has strong benefits to newborns, a new study (In PDF Format) by Columbia University's Center for Children’s Environmental Health. This is the first study to demonstrate the benefits of the ban during pregnancy in human subjects.
The study looked at the impact on fetal growth of chlorpyrifos and diazinon - two insecticides whose use in households was banned by the federal government in 2000. These two insecticides had been among the most commonly used for residential pest control and were available in a wide variety of household sprays and other home insecticides; Chlorpyrifos was the most frequently used residential insecticide in New York City. Both are still widely used in agriculture and continue to be found in the food supply.
The research involved 314 infants of African American and Dominican women in Washington Heights, Central Harlem and the South Bronx. The researchers measured the levels of the two insecticides in blood drawn from the umbilical cords at birth, both before and after the ban, and correlated those levels with the babies' birth weight and length.
Newborns arriving before the ban went into effect in January, 2001, who had insecticide in their blood weighed almost a half a pound less, and were smaller, on average, than those with no detectable levels. After the ban, the combined insecticide exposure levels had been reduced substantially, and there was no discernable effect on fetal growth.
"This study demonstrates the positive effect of the federal ban, which has substantially reduced exposures and benefited human health," said Dr. Robin M. Whyatt, principal author of the study. "The differences in fetal growth seen here are comparable to the differences between babies whose mothers smoke during pregnancy and babies whose mothers don't. The fact that the ban was associated with such an immediate change in birth weight and length provides considerable evidence of cause and effect."
"The results highlight the need to address continuing prenatal exposures to these and other toxic pesticides," said Dr. Frederica P. Perera, Director of the Mailman Center and the study team leader.
This research is part of a broader, multi-year research project, "The Mothers & Children Study In New York City," that was begun in 1998. It examines the health effects of exposure of pregnant women and babies to air pollutants from vehicle exhaust, the commercial burning of fuels, and tobacco smoking, as well as from residential use of pesticides and allergens.
In 2001, Marleny Acevedo, who was on public assistance, missed an appointment with her caseworker because her eight-month-old son had a fever and she stayed home to take care of him. When she tried to reschedule the appointment, her caseworker told her she would be sanctioned. Her bi-monthly benefits were reduced from $68.50 to $51, and then dropped again. What's more, the city hadn't included her son when it calculated her benefits, so Acevedo was being shorted a total of $174 a month in benefits and food stamps.
Altagracia Galindez, a 44-year-old mother of five, never knew that she was entitled to 25 percent more in public assistance than she was receiving. She didn't even know she was sanctioned until two years later. Several months of subsequent fighting her way through bureaucratic red tape led nowhere.
These women eventually received their full benefits, thanks to Acevedo v. Turner, a class action suit brought against the city's Human Resources Administration that was settled in April. Under the terms of the settlement, people facing sanctions will be notified of their alleged noncompliance and given information on how to challenge sanctions. In addition, the Human Resources Administration is now required to lift sanctions within seven business days of its being notified that a person has complied with the requirements.
Approximately 2,000 women are sanctioned by the city annually because they fail to comply with the child support cooperation requirements. Most of those are for inappropriate reasons, charges Randal Jeffrey, the attorney handled Acevedo's case for the New York Legal Assistance Group, such as missing a single appointment. "The question isn't whether the sanction is legitimate, it's whether they can get it lifted at all," Jeffrey says.
Commissioner Bell resigns from the Administration of Children's Services
William C. Bell, the Commissioner of the Administration for Children's Services, is leaving his post in July to work at a private child welfare agency. Bell, who has headed the agency since December 2001, had helped institute a nationally regarded overhaul of the city's child welfare system.
Bell's record is mixed, say child advocates. Under him the agency tried to keep children in their own homes with the help of services from community organizations. The number of children in foster care has dropped by more than half since 1996, to 22,000. But the average stay in foster care in the city is 49 and a half months, well above the national average of 33 months, and the waitlist for low-income childcare has grown to 43,000.
His replacement has not been announced.
Sasha Nyary, formerly on the staff of Life Magazine and the mother of a public school student, edits the newsletter of The Fifth Avenue Committee, a community-based organization.