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Pesticide Additive Harms Children's Mental Development


A common pesticide additive called piperonyl butoxide, which is found in common household insecticides, has been associated with an increased risk of delayed mental development in young children. Piperonyl butoxide is also an agent used in medications used to treat children who have scabies and lice.

Additive’s impact on mental development is a concern

Piperonyl butoxide is a synergist, which means it increases the potency of the insecticides to which it is added. Most often those insecticides include pyrethrin, pyrethroid, and carbamate.

In a new study, Megan Horton, PhD, of Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health in New York City, and her colleagues evaluated data from nearly 350 children who, along with their mothers, were participating in the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health Mothers and Newborns study.

The researchers measured levels of piperonyl butoxide and permethrin in personal air they collected from 348 Dominican and black women during their pregnancies. They also gathered exposure level information to permethrin from the women’s maternal and umbilical cord plasma.

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After the researchers made adjustments for a variety of factors, including prenatal exposure to tobacco smoke, they found that children who had the greatest level of prenatal exposure to piperonyl butoxide had a more than threefold increased risk of delayed mental development at three years of age.

According to the Pesticide Action Network, piperonyl butoxide is a suspected endocrine disruptor and a possible carcinogen. Piperonyl butoxide is also an ingredient in medications containing pyrethrin that are used to treat scabies and lice infestations in children. These medications are poisonous if swallowed or if too much of the product touches the skin.

The authors of the new study note that the effects of the pesticide additive in their study were comparable to those in previous studies regarding other prenatal neurotoxins that can impact young children. There is increased concern about pyrethroid insecticides not only because they are being used much more than they were in the past, but also they have not been studied extensively for their toxicity potential.

The pesticide additive piperonyl butoxide has been shown to lead to oxidative damage, which has potential to impact neurologic and mental development in children. Given that pyrethrins and pyrethroids are found in more than 3,500 registered products, including many used in the home and on pets, the risk of exposure is widespread and deserves further investigation.

Horton M et al. Pediatrics 2011 Feb 7; doi: 10.1542/peds.2010-0133
Pesticide Action Network