Canadians Against Pesticides
Asthma, spraying may be linked
Children like those in Delta affected most, researcher notes
By James Walker
Mississippi Clarion-Ledger Staff Writer
April 17, 2001
In the Mississippi Delta, where houses, cotton and soybeans sit side by side in endless rows, where crop dusters are the surest sign of spring, LaQuita Miller can tell the time of year by her lungs.
During the growing season, when the wind blows airborne pesticides toward her home, 16-year-old Miller said asthma makes her chest tighten and her lungs ache. When her middle school, just yards from the fields, was accidentally doused by a crop duster a few years ago, it caused a flurry of asthma attacks that sent her and dozens of other students home sick.
"It smells like Raid, only stronger," she said. "If I stand outside, I get short of breath. We can't even stand in our front yards because (the crop dusters) are out seven days a week."
Asthma has long been linked to environmental triggers like dust mites and pollen. But a new pilot study suggests children like Miller, who grow up surrounded by pesticides like those used heavily in the Delta, may be nearly twice as likely to have asthma as other children.
An asthma attack happens when the bronchial tubes constrict in response to airborne irritants, exercise or allergies. Symptoms include wheezing, coughing, difficulty breathing and a feeling of tightness in the chest. The constriction is a normal response to keep foreign objects out of the lungs, but the airways of asthmatics are abnormally sensitive and can constrict so far that breathing becomes nearly impossible.
The study, which involved two rural health clinics in Tutwiler and Lexington, was too small to provide a definitive link between asthma and farm chemicals, said Dr. Dennis Frate, the University of Mississippi Medical Center epidemiologist who did the research. But the dramatic finding "lends itself to further investigation," he said.
John Dew, pilot of a crop duster in Rolling Fork, said responsible pilots don't spray on days when the wind is blowing toward homes, and the chemicals used in recent years are safer than those used years ago, he said.
"Most of the chemicals we use now are a lot more environmentally friendly," Dew said. "Even some of the older chemicals were not as bad as people made them out to be."
He added that new technology, such as more precise spray nozzles, keeps the chemical from being carried as far on the wind.
"The things we're doing now are very safe," he said.
But the results were no surprise to Dr. Anne Brooks, who found children suffering from debilitating asthma, especially those who lived closest to the fields, when she came to the Tutwiler Clinic in 1983. Treatments, which have improved and have become more affordable, are still out of reach for the poorest and most isolated, Brooks said.
"People are still dying of asthma here," she said.
One of her first patients was a boy from Rome, who lived with fields on all sides and crop dusters constantly overhead, Brooks said. He had trouble getting to the clinic for his medication and didn't always take it as directed, which resulted in frequent and severe asthma attacks.
"I frequently saw him as an emergency room patient, and he once passed out in my arms from lack of oxygen," she said.
As he grew up and moved away from the Delta, his condition improved, but when he returned, it quickly deteriorated, Brooks said. He died recently at age 26 during a severe attack, when he couldn't find a ride to the hospital.
That young man was one of several Tutwiler asthma patients who have died far too early, Brooks said. While genetics, dust and other allergens probably play a part, Brooks said she has always suspected a connection between the chemical haze that blankets Delta farming communities and her patients' breathing problems.
"That's a no-brainer," she said. Studies in urban areas have shown links between asthma rates and airborne irritants, like dust mites, cockroach hairs and pollen, Frate said. With further study, he said, a similar connection might be made with airborne pesticides.
The pilot study, sponsored by Health Track, found an average of 60 children per 1,000 in the agricultural Delta were diagnosed with asthma, while the rate in the hills near Lexington was 33 per 1,000. But a definitive study would examine paper records at more clinics, he said.
Mississippi already has a tracking network for cancer data, and a similar monitoring network for other noninfectious diseases, such as asthma, might go a long way in providing data to illuminate possible environmental causes, he said. Better data, combined with education, may be the best weapon against such diseases.
"We've been looking at educating people in the Delta about limiting their exposure to pesticides," Frate said.
His educational campaign began several years ago with brochures and children's puppet shows about the dangers of using farm chemicals for indoor pest control. The campaign also includes lessons about taking laundry off the line when crop dusters approach.
In Indianola, LaQuita Miller and others have launched their own campaign. Shortly after her school was hit by the crop duster two years ago, she began circulating a petition in class to get spraying stopped near her school. Working with Betty Petty of the Indianola Parent Student Group and others, her campaign continues.
"This is our neighborhood," said Petty, indicating a row of houses, a retirement home and the middle school that sit adjacent to a vast expanse of farmland. "In order for us to have a good life, a healthy life, the spraying needs to cease."
She has called for buffer zones around homes and schools where chemicals cannot be sprayed from the air. But in a region as deeply agricultural as the Mississippi Delta, few have picked up the call.
But Miller knows the effects on children firsthand, and she hopes to see the situation improve for the next generation.
"Most of the people that I go to school with live along this street," she said. "They have little brothers and sisters, and they want them to be able to play outside and have a good time."
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