C.H.A.M.A.C.O.S. stands for the Center for the Health Assessment of Mothers and Children of Salinas, and also means “kids”in Mexican Spanish.
It’s the name given by Brenda Eskenazi, an epidemiologist at the University of California, Berkeley, for a group studying the effects of exposure to agriculture chemicals on children born in Salinas Valley between 2000 and 2002. The longitudinal study has followed more than half of the research population since birth.
Eskenazi and her team have focused primarily on three aspects of health that may be affected by these exposures: neurobehavioral development, which, if disrupted, can affect a child’s I.Q.; respiratory health; and growth, including weight and metabolism.
This population sees higher rates of exposure to organophosphate chemicals, which are found in pesticides, than the general population, so there are possible implications of this study for farmworker communities and Californians at large.
Today, the C.H.A.M.A.C.O.S. sample size comprises more than 600 kids. Not all their mothers have been farmworkers, but almost all have a family member who is a farmworker or a housemate who is one.
With this gradient of exposures, the study can determine whether increased exposure leads to increased adverse outcomes.
Measuring organophosphates in the body is tricky because the chemicals stay there for only a short period of time, but the center has managed to produce compelling reports documenting their harmful effects on gestational duration, attention spans, I.Q. and executive functioning; more recently, findings have pointed to respiratory problems in children exposed in utero.
The study also uncovered a double-burden where exposure to the chemicals can occur merely through food residues, which, because of the quantity consumed over time, can be as or even more harmful than direct exposure while spraying pesticides. Of course, this means that farmworker communities are disproportionately vulnerable to toxic organophosphates through multiple pathways.
There’s also an important environmental-justice issue in play, because areas with higher spray exposure are also areas with lower socioeconomic status; about half of the children in the study are food insecure.
So, as Eskenazi points out, while restricting pesticides is important to workers and growing children, the issues are complex: Getting rid of agriculture in Salinas is not a solution, because it would reduce job opportunities. Instead, the industry needs to make agriculture work healthier for the people doing the jobs.
The C.H.A.M.A.C.O.S. team believes that education among growers and workers, along with a movement to grow food more safely and an understanding of the complexity of these issues, is the way forward.
Meanwhile, the research has led to changes in protecting workers, in ways as small as requiring workers to wear surgical gloves.