Franciscan Health study connects herbicide exposure to infant health risks

Does exposure to glyphosate – a commonly used pesticide used to kill weeds – affect the health and development of fetuses and newborns?

A recent study appearing in the scientific journal Environmental Health reveals that exposure to glyphosate is associated with lower birth weights and may increase the risk for neonatal intensive care unit admissions. The study found that the chemical agent was present in 99 percent of pregnant patients observed in the Midwest.

“Pesticide exposure in pregnancy, especially in early pregnancy, can imprint DNA and alter gene expression,” said Paul Winchester, MD, neonatologist with Franciscan Health Indianapolis and principal author of the study. “But little is known about how these chemicals can impact fetal development in humans.”

Dr. Winchester and his research colleagues studied a cohort of 187 pregnant women in Indiana by collecting urine samples during their first trimesters of pregnancy. All but one had glyphosate detected in their urine.

Previous studies conducted in animal models have shown a variety of ill-effects of pesticide exposure; however, little is known about the impact on human fetal development. Dr. Winchester led a study in 2017 that found an association between heavier pesticide exposure and shortened pregnancy. This study was replicated and further amplified to confirm that pre-term birth risk was higher in women with higher prenatal exposure to glyphosate.

Countless volumes of pesticides were used on corn and soybean crops in 2018 in the United States, and worldwide glyphosate is sprayed on acres of cotton, wheat, oats and barely as well as forests, lawns gardens and roadways. Thus, glyphosate and its metabolite residue is now found in nearly every food and many beverages, including wines.

Research shows a link between pesticide exposure and infant health problems, as well as obesity and gestational diabetes in their mothers. (Stock image)

“As a neonatologist, I am seeing more and more infants with low birth weight, premature birth as infants with problems associated with mothers with obesity and gestational diabetes,” said Dr. Winchester, who is also a professor of clinical pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine. Other research suggests that glyphosate can act as a male hormone, masculinizing female fetuses and may be linked to other conditions such as ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Lower weights (adjusted for pregnancy length) found in this study replicates what was found in a previous animal study performed by Dr. Winchester’s collaborator, Michael Skinner, PhD, professor of biological sciences at Washington State University. In this animal model, lower birth weights led to higher rates of obesity in subsequent generations. The rise in the rates of obesity in humans has been recently reported by Dr. Winchester and others.

Could the rise in child and adult obesity rates be linked to glyphosate exposures in pregnancy as seen in animals?

“We should be alarmed that nearly every one of us, including our unborn children now get a dose of pesticides with every meal,” said Dr. Winchester. “We need to keep studying these herbicides long-term to find out how they could be contributing to these issues and what we can do to prevent them.”

This most recent study was a collaboration with Franciscan Health, University of California-San Francisco, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and King’s College London School of Medicine and the Indiana University School of Medicine.

Dr. Winchester is well-known for his groundbreaking research of how pesticide use effects premature births and birth defects. Franciscan Health Indianapolis is also a world-renowned center for related research into that field.