Living through a pandemic is definitely scary. Being pregnant during a pandemic can be even scarier, because there are so many unknowns. The novel coronavirus has raised uncertainty about what the effects of the virus are on pregnant woman. At the least, we know that a woman’s immune system is lowered during pregnancy, making her more susceptible to illness in general.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has deemed certain ethnicities to be at a higher risk for COVID-19 than others. This is due to different factors including: poverty level, access to adequate health care, underlying conditions, type of work, legal status, etc. Unfortunately, farmworkers fall under all of these categories. Oftentimes, farmworker live in areas where they share common spaces, which can lead to rapid spread of the virus in this community.
Being a pregnant farmworker woman during this pandemic is possibly the scariest scenario of all, because farmworker women have the double threat of COVID-19 and pesticide exposure to one’s developing baby. Exposure to the coronavirus and to pesticides can both be extremely stressful for this population. Many pesticides are known endocrine disruptors that interfere with the body’s biological signals. Some chemicals pass through the body quickly, while others are carried in the blood and tissue for years. Pesticides are harmful to the reproductive system, sometimes killing cells or damaging cells, resulting in infertility.
In addition, pesticides have also been implicated in farmworker women’s miscarriages, in premature births, reduced fertility in both men and women, altered sex ratio (fewer boys being born) and a number of developmental defects. A study of pesticide levels in newborn umbilical cord blood found that infants with higher levels of pesticides tended to weigh less at birth. The study also found that organochlorine pesticides, like DDT, which are no longer used in the U.S., are found at significant levels in the umbilical cord blood of newborn infants, largely because DDT has a long shelf life, is easily stored in fat cells, and is very resistant to metabolism. This information would seem to suggest that even forgotten pesticides, such as the organochlorine pesticide mentioned above, can end up having drastic effects on children born today.
Some research suggests that the greatest risk of exposure to pesticides is during the first three to eight weeks of the first trimester when the neural tube (brain) development is occurring. Babies exposed to pesticides either in utero or during other critical periods face significant health risks including higher incidence of: birth defects, neurodevelopmental delays, cognitive impairment, childhood brain cancers, Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD), and endocrine disruption.
There is limited pregnancy-specific data about COVID-19, and, although studies are being conducted, there is still a lot that we don’t know. Therefore, while we start getting back to “normal”, the best thing a pregnant woman can do is to use common sense, and if possible, stay at home. Also, avoid being around and using pesticides at home and in the fields during pregnancy. Practicing social distancing will be key to preventing any exposure to the novel coronavirus.
While living through the COVID-19 pandemic and working in the fields during pregnancy, farmworker women can do the following to ensure they stay safe and healthy:
- Practice social distancing
- Wash hands frequently
- Avoid being around sick people, and people who have been exposed to the virus
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands
- Cover your coughs and sneezes with a tissue and throw the tissue in the trash
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces and objects
- Launder items, including washable plush toys, by following instructions on the label
- Avoid exposure to pesticides at the worksite and at home
- At home, remove food, dishes, and utensils from any area where a pesticide is about to be used
- During outdoor pesticide application, close all windows and turn off air conditioning
- Open the windows and allow air flow into the house after pesticides are applied and have dissipated
- Wear rubber gloves and protective clothing when working outdoors to prevent skin contact with plants that have pesticides or pesticide residue on them
AFOP Health & Safety Programs offers the farmworker community specialized training on pesticide exposure prevention during pregnancy. This training, called Pesticide Exposure & Pregnancy (PEP), is an interactive and multilingual curriculum that provides farmworkers with vital information on the health effects of pesticides, and what to do in order to prevent pesticide exposure during pregnancy. Farmworker men are equally responsible to prevent their partner from exposure, therefore the curriculum is targeted to both sexes to ensure everyone is taking the proper precautions for having a healthy and safe pregnancy.