Open access
1 December 2014

Assessing the Impact of Aerial Pesticide Spraying: Mancozeb Exposures among Pregnant Women Living near Banana Plantations

Publication: Environmental Health Perspectives
Volume 122, Issue 12
Page A337
Mancozeb is sprayed on bananas to prevent black sigatoka, a fungal disease that impairs fruit ripening and reduces banana yields.1 In this issue of EHP, investigators report that pregnant women living near banana plantations in Costa Rica have elevated urinary levels of ethylene thiourea (ETU), a metabolite of mancozeb.2 At 2.9 µg/L,2 the median ETU level in these women was nearly twice the 95th percentile of exposure measured in pregnant women in California who lived near ground spraying of mancozeb.3
New findings suggest that current regulations governing aerial application of pesticides may not adequately protect pregnant women living near Costa Rican banana plantations.
© Marcus Winterbauer, WDR/Längengrad Filmproduktion GmbH
For the current study, researchers analyzed urine samples collected from 445 pregnant women enrolled in the Infants’ Environmental Health Study in Limón, Costa Rica. All the women lived within 5 km of a banana plantation. Three-quarters of them were housewives or did not work, while 8% (plus 63% of their partners) reporting working on a banana plantation or performing other agricultural work. None reported applying mancozeb herself.
Urine samples were collected up to three times during pregnancy. The highest ETU levels occurred in women living within 50 m of a banana plantation. These women had urinary ETU concentrations about 45% higher than the women who lived farthest away. ETU concentrations also were elevated in pregnant women who had recently washed farmworkers’ clothes and in those who worked in banana packing plants. Nearly three-fourths of the women had an estimated daily intake of ETU exceeding the reference dose of 0.08 µg/kg/day4 set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for chronic oral exposure.2
The researchers are currently analyzing data they collected on the women’s babies, including gestational age at birth, growth, and neurodevelopment at 12 months of age. “We also are in the process of seeking funds to evaluate growth, behavior, and respiratory symptoms at age four years and a later date,” says study leader Berna van Wendel de Joode, a professor at National University’s Central American Institute for Studies of Toxic Substances in Heredia, Costa Rica.
Animal studies show that ETU, at high concentrations, interferes with fetal brain cell development5 and disrupts thyroid function after chronic exposure to lower concentrations.6 Proper levels of thyroid hormones are needed to regulate fetal brain development.7 Mancozeb has been associated with hypothyroidism in nonpregnant women exposed agriculturally in Iowa and North Carolina.8
For the pregnant Costa Rican women, “the relatively high levels of ETU pose a theoretical risk to their fetuses,” says endocrinologist Whitney Goldner of Nebraska Medicine in Omaha; if exposure were to result in untreated hypothyroidism during pregnancy, the women’s children would be at increased risk for neurocognitive developmental problems in the future, she says.
Aerial spraying, which occurred weekly in the study area, may increase respiratory and dermal uptake of mancozeb, according to the authors. They recommend that aerial application of pesticides should be reduced and/or replaced with more easily controlled methods; homes should be built farther from banana plantations with vegetative barriers planted between them; and work clothes should be machine-washed at the workplace rather than hand-washed at home.2 In future studies, Goldner says, pregnant women with high ETU levels ideally would be screened for hypothyroidism and treated if necessary to prevent any risk to the fetus.
Researchers elsewhere are seeking more sustainable methods for growing bananas. For example, at EARTH University (Escuela de Agricultura de la Región Tropical Húmeda), a research facility and working banana plantation in Costa Rica, a proprietary blend of nontoxic fungi-killing bacteria and yeast replace some of the mancozeb sprayed.9 Researchers at CIRAD (French Agricultural Research Center for International Development) in Martinique, French West Indies, have bred a banana hybrid that resists diseases and pests.10 “It’s important to do more research on alternative pest control methods,” says van Wendel de Joode.


Geissen V et al. Soil and water pollution in a banana production region in tropical Mexico. Bull Environ Contam Toxicol 85(4):407-413 2010.;
van Wendel de Joode B et al. Aerial application of mancozeb and urinary ethylene thiourea (ETU) concentrations among pregnant women in Costa Rica: the Infants’ Environmental Health Study (ISA). Environ Health Perspect 122(12):1321-1328 2014.;
Castorina R et al. Comparison of current-use pesticide and other toxicant urinary metabolite levels among pregnant women in the CHAMACOS cohort and NHANES. Environ Health Perspect 118(6):856-863 2010.;
EPA. IRIS Integrated Risk Information System: Ethylene Thiourea (ETU) (CASRN 96-45-7) [website]. Washington, DC:U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (updated 31 October 2014). Available: [accessed 6 November 2014].
Khera KS Neuronal degeneration caused by ethylenethiourea in neuronal monocell layers in vitro and in fetal rat brain in vivo. Teratology 36(1):87-93 1987.
Panganiban L et al. Correlation between blood ethylenethiourea and thyroid gland disorders among banana plantation workers in the Philippines. Environ Health Perspect 112(1):42-45 2004.;
Patel J et al. Thyroid hormones and fetal neurological development. J Endocrinol 209(1):1-8 2011.;
Goldner WS et al. Pesticide use and thyroid disease among women in the Agricultural Health Study. Am J Epidemiol 171(4):455-464 2010.;
Nicole W Food from EARTH: sustainable farming in action. Environ Health Perspect 121(7):A212-A219 2013.;
Tixier P et al. Modeling pest dynamics of new crop cultivars: the FB920 banana with the Helicotylenchus multicinctus-Radopholus similis nematode complex in Martinique. Crop Protection 27(11):1427-1431 2008.;

Information & Authors


Published In

Environmental Health Perspectives
Volume 122Issue 12December 2014
Pages: A337
PubMed: 25436643


Published online: 1 December 2014



Carol Potera
Carol Potera, based in Montana, also writes for Microbe, Genetic Engineering News, and the American Journal of Nursing.

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