Herbicide exposure has negative effects on brain function in adolescents, study reports

19 October 2023

A new study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives highlights a concerning link between herbicides like glyphosate and impaired brain function in adolescents. Led by researchers from the University of California San Diego, this study sheds light on the potential risks associated with exposure to widely-used herbicides and their effects on the developing adolescent brain.

To investigate the impact of herbicide exposure on adolescent brain function, the research team collected data from 519 adolescents aged 11 to 17 in Pedro Moncayo, Ecuador. They focused their attention on two of the most commonly used herbicides worldwide: glyphosate and 2,4-D. Additionally, the study examined the presence of DEET, an insect repellent, in urine samples.

The study’s findings revealed a disconcerting association between the urinary concentrations of glyphosate and 2,4-D and diminished performance in various neurobehavioral domains. Specifically, adolescents with higher urinary concentrations of these herbicides demonstrated lower performance in five critical areas: attention, memory, language, visuospatial processing, and social perception.

When it comes to the two herbicides, 2,4-D was found to have a more robust connection with impaired neurobehavioral performance, especially in areas such as attention, inhibitory control, memory, learning, and language. Glyphosate, on the other hand, was linked to lower scores in social perception. It’s noteworthy that glyphosate residues were detected in a staggering 98 percent of the study’s participants, while 2,4-D was present in 66 percent of the samples.

This study is not an isolated case; as reported by Politico Europe in its Agriculture & Food newsletter, prior research has also pointed to the potential dangers of exposure to commonly-used insecticides. Some of these insecticides have been associated with alterations in neurocognitive performance, while others might impact mood and brain development.

The implications of these findings are significant, as herbicides and insecticides are widely used in agricultural industries across both developed and developing nations. This prevalence increases the risk of exposure for individuals of all ages, particularly those residing in agricultural regions.

However, it remains essential to acknowledge that the full extent of these risks, and their potential impact at various life stages, is not yet fully understood. As Briana Chronister, a doctoral candidate at UC San Diego who co-authored the study, pointed out, “There is considerable use of herbicides and insecticides in agricultural industries in both developed and developing nations around the world, raising exposure potential for children and adults, especially if they live in agricultural areas, but we don’t know how it impacts each stage of life.”

This underscores the importance of continued research and heightened awareness of the potential consequences of herbicide and insecticide exposure on human health, particularly among vulnerable populations like adolescents.

The re-approval of glyphosate in the EU did not secure a majority decision in its first vote in the European Parliament on October 13, but the European Commission can still independently approve glyphosate before its current license expires in December, but an “appeal” vote is scheduled for November, giving countries another opportunity to make a decision.

SAFE reiterates its opposition to the re-approval of glyphosate in the EU, due to safety and health concerns.