We used stratified analyses to determine which covariates had potential to be confounders. We assessed the exposure prevalence among controls and the distribution of covariates by case-control status for each of the following: race (white, Hispanic/black, or other), gender of fetus/infant (male or female), trimester prenatal care began (first, second, or third), season of conception (December–February, March–May, June–August, or September–November), and prior fetal loss (yes or no). The distribution of demographic characteristics by case status is described in Table 4. No covariate was materially associated with both exposure and case status. For this reason, the final models included only two covariates: maternal age and county of residence (the matching variables).
We examined stratified odds ratios (ORs) to screen for potential effect modifiers. Inclusion criteria for potential effect modifiers required that stratum-specific ORs differ by 100% or more. On the basis of the results of these stratified analyses, we included no interaction term in the model.
We calculated adjusted ORs and 95% confidence intervals (CIs) using logistic regression for those exposed according to the nine-TRS definition, and again for those exposed in the one-TRS definition, separately for each of the five pesticide classes. Separate analyses for ground and aerial modes of application were also completed for those exposed in the nine TRSs. These analyses were limited to those exposed to the specific pesticide class and mode of interest. For example, in the analysis for subjects exposed to pesticides via ground application, individuals exposed to aerial applications were excluded from the analysis. The unexposed group consisted of those not exposed to the specific pesticide class during the stated time period. The number of individuals exposed within their home TRS was not sufficient for statistical analysis by mode of application.
For those who returned questionnaires (40 cases and 357 controls, 55% of the total cohort), an analysis that adjusted for variables not available from the birth and death certificates was conducted.
Broad Geographic Definition of Exposure
For potential exposure within the nine nearest TRSs of maternal residence, the adjusted ORs (controlling for maternal age and county) and the distributions of exposure prevalence by case status are listed in Table 5. Analyses examining exposure at different time windows during gestation showed a slight, but consistent, trend; ORs increased as the definition of exposure narrowed toward the time of organogenesis (3rd–8th week of gestation). The ORs for exposure during organogenesis ranged from 1.4 (95% CI = 0.8–2.4) for phosphates, carbamates, and endocrine disruptors to 2.2 (95% CI = 1.3–3.9) for halogenated hydrocarbons. The ORs did not change much when individuals exposed between the 3rd and 8th weeks of gestation were compared with those not exposed to any of the five pesticide classes (exposure definition D) during the same time period. The ORs for this more restrictive definition of nonexposure ranged from a low of 1.4 (95% CI = 0.8–2.5) for phosphates to 2.3 (95% CI = 1.2–4.4) for halogenated hydrocarbons.
Narrow Geographic Definition of Exposure
The adjusted ORs (Table 6) relating fetal death due to congenital anomalies with pesticide application in the same TRS as the residence increased as the time window of exposure decreased toward the period of organogenesis. The ORs for those exposed within the same TRS as the residence during the period of organogenesis ranged from 2.0 (95% CI = 0.8–4.9) for pyrethroids to 3.0 (95% CI = 1.4–6.5) for phosphates. Small numbers prevented the determination of adjusted ORs for those exposed to halogenated hydrocarbons. For the more restrictive definition of nonexposure (not exposed to any of the five classes during weeks 3–8), the ORs ranged from 2.1 (95% CI = 0.8–5.5) for carbamates to 2.9 (95% CI = 1.3–6.6) for phosphates.
Exposure by Mode of Application (Ground vs Aerial): Broad Definition of Exposure
Again, most of the ORs increased as timing of exposure decreased to the critical 3rd–8th-week time window (data not shown). Analyses of pesticides applied during organogenesis solely by the ground application method in the nine-TRS area (Table 7) resulted in ORs ranging from 1.5 (95% CI = 0.8–2.7) for endocrine disruptors to 2.1 (95% CI = 0.9–4.7) for pyrethroids and halogenated hydrocarbons. The number of individuals exposed to pesticides applied solely by aerial methods, even within the nine-TRS area, was small, particularly for halogenated hydrocarbons. The general pattern of ORs was not different from that for ground application.
Multiple Exposure Classes
Table 8 shows the number of controls and cases exposed to multiple pesticide classes in the nine-TRS area (all modes of application). Cases were more likely to have been exposed to three or more of the five pesticide classes, whereas controls were more likely to have not been exposed at all. The adjusted OR for those exposed to three or more pesticide classes was 2.6 (95% CI = 1.3–5.3), whereas those exposed to one or two pesticide classes showed no association, with an OR of 1.1 (95% CI = 0.6–2.1). In addition, whereas the majority of cases due to anencephaly and lung anomalies were unexposed, cases with urinary system anomalies and multiple congenital anomalies were more likely to have been exposed to at least three different pesticide classes.
The results for those who returned questionnaires, after adjustment for maternal smoking, alcohol use, and occupational exposure to pesticides, showed that the association between maternal residential pesticide exposure and fetal death due to congenital anomalies was not confounded by these factors for this subset of subjects. Nevertheless, with the exception of exposure to phosphates, the ORs (adjusted for county and age) for those who returned questionnaires were higher than for those with no questionnaire data. To explore further the potential for selection bias, we examined the distribution of demographic characteristics by questionnaire-return status. Those who returned questionnaires were more likely to be white, to be older, and to have sought prenatal care during the first trimester (data not shown).
In ten agricultural counties of California, proximity to commercial pesticide applications was associated with an elevated risk of fetal death due to congenital anomalies. Furthermore, a consistent pattern was found with respect to timing of exposure; the largest risks for fetal death due to congenital anomalies were from pesticide exposure during the 3rd–8th weeks of pregnancy. This pattern held for all five pesticide classifications, with ORs ranging from 1.4 to 2.2 for those exposed within a 9-square mile area of their residence (Table 5). Narrowing the area of potential exposure to the same TRS as the mother’s residence produced a stronger association between pesticide exposure and fetal death due to congenital anomalies as compared with the associations observed for the nine-TRS exposure definition (Table 6). In addition, for both the nine- and one-TRS analyses, the ORs did not change when the definition of nonexposure was restricted to those not exposed to any of the five pesticide classes during the 3rd–8th weeks of pregnancy. Restricting the definition of nonexposure did decrease precision owing to the fact that fewer people were included in the analysis, given that those removed from the nonexposure group were excluded entirely.
Although epidemiologic studies of pesticides have not looked at exposure during the 3rd–8th weeks of pregnancy in relation to birth defects or fetal death due to congenital anomalies, several have examined these outcomes in relation to exposure by trimester. Elevated ORs for birth defects in livebirths in those with occupational exposure to pesticides during the first trimester of pregnancy were observed by Garcia et al, 17 Nurminen et al, 29 and Zhang et al 21 with ORs of 1.8 (95% CI = 0.3–10.5), 1.4 (95% CI = 0.9–2.0), and 3.2 (95% CI = 1.1–9.0), respectively. Increased ORs for congenital anomalies were also observed for women reporting household use of pesticides and living within 0.25 miles of an agricultural crop at any time during the month before conception and the first trimester of pregnancy. 13
Pastore et al 11 evaluated self-reported occupational and home pesticide exposure for the cases and controls in the present study with completed questionnaires. Occupational pesticide exposure during the first 2 months of pregnancy was associated with stillbirths due to congenital abnormalities (OR = 2.4, 95% CI = 1.0–5.9) and during the first two trimesters for all causes of fetal death (OR = 1.3–1.4, 95% CI = 1.0–1.7). Home pesticide exposure was positively associated with fetal death due to congenital anomalies (OR = 1.7, 95% CI = 1.0–2.9). Neither occupational nor home pesticide use, however, explained the association we observed with agricultural pesticide applications.
Pesticides were applied using ground and aerial modes of application. Ground application can include injection of the pesticides directly into the soil, as well as spraying of the pesticide onto the fields from tractor-drawn rigs. Aerial application is the spraying of pesticides from airplanes as they fly over the crops. Although both methods may result in pesticide drift, potentially exposing nearby residents, we wanted to determine whether mode of application influenced the association between pesticide exposure and fetal death due to congenital anomalies. In this analysis, the association did not differ greatly between the two modes of applications. We lacked data on meteorology or other factors, however, that might have influenced the extent of drift, and addresses were not geocoded to exact locations within the TRS.
A major strength of this study is the fact that exposure assessment was not based on recall. Exposure was determined from state-maintained computer databases covering all commercial applications of a large number of pesticides. Hence, its ascertainment was independent of birth outcome, which is a distinct advantage over most case-control studies of birth outcomes and environmental exposures. Exposure assessment is also improved in that exposure information was collected for each day of pregnancy. The daily exposure measurements provided the opportunity to evaluate the association with fetal death by examining pesticide application during the critical biological period of relevance, organogenesis. The availability of data on the mode of pesticide application and the proximity of the pesticide application to the maternal residence allowed us to refine further the exposure definition.
Despite these strengths, several limitations pertaining to exposure assessment are still present. A surrogate of exposure, the TRS of pesticide applications in relation to maternal address at time of delivery or fetal death, was used as the determining factor for exposure classification. The smallest unit of the TRS system is 1 square mile. Hence, the exact distance of the pesticide application from the home (for example, a few feet or >1 mile) could not be determined. In addition, exposure assessment data such as daily activity patterns, home monitoring, and biological samples were not available. Our exposure classification method did not guarantee that a mother was, in fact, exposed, because wind and weather conditions, hour of application, and the location of the mother at the time of the application are all factors that would determine actual exposure. Mothers who worked away from the home (and were not exposed to pesticides at work) would potentially have fewer hours in the day to be exposed compared with mothers at home. In addition, because maternal residence at the time of delivery was used as the marker for determination of exposure, misclassification of exposure could result for those mothers who moved during pregnancy. Residential history was available for those mothers who returned questionnaires. For those who moved, the TRS for the address reported by the mother on the questionnaire was used to determine exposure. Residential history was not available for mothers who did not return questionnaires, and therefore it is possible that some misclassification of exposure may have occurred for those women.
In addition, only five of the many pesticide classes that were applied in the ten counties in 1984 were examined. Although these five classes have shown fetotoxic effects in animal studies, it is possible that other pesticide classes that were not evaluated may have an association with fetal death due to congenital anomalies. Given the likelihood that women were exposed to multiple pesticide classes, other pesticides could have confounded these results.
A further issue is the possibility that, although all applications of restricted pesticides are required to be reported to the state database in California, some applications or dates or areas of application may have been recorded inaccurately. In addition, it is possible that some pesticides that were not declared restricted in 1983–1984 could potentially cause adverse health effects on the fetus; these pesticides were not captured in the state pesticide database for those years. Nevertheless, given that many pesticides must go through an extensive battery of toxicologic tests before approval for use, the number of potentially harmful pesticides not on the 1983–1984 list is expected to be small.
An additional limitation is the potential for biased results due to the inability to adjust for occupational pesticide exposure, maternal alcohol consumption, and maternal smoking in the analysis of all subjects. These factors were determined not to be confounders in the subset who returned questionnaires. Different ORs were observed, however, for those with and without questionnaire data. For example, for those exposed to halogenated hydrocarbons during the period of organogenesis, the OR among those without questionnaire data was 1.8 compared with 2.8 for those who returned questionnaires. Because those with and without questionnaire data differed on race, age, and trimester in which prenatal care began, it is also possible that they would differ on factors such as smoking status, alcohol consumption, and occupational pesticide exposure. If these factors are functioning as confounders among the group without questionnaire data, and the confounding is strong enough to impact the risk estimate for the entire cohort, then our inability to adjust for these factors may have led to the observation of slightly biased ORs.
It is important to note that this study was designed to examine fetal death and not congenital anomalies. Because the congenital anomalies examined in this analysis are a unique group, that is, they were fatal, the results may not be generalizable to congenital anomalies among all births, particularly among those infants who survive. Nevertheless, our case group did include neonatal deaths in the first 24 hours, which constituted 59% of these cases. As previously discussed, studies that have examined congenital anomalies among livebirths have also found increased associations with pesticide exposures.
Given that most teratogens are associated with specific anomalies or syndromes, it seems unlikely that pesticides could be related to all congenital anomalies. In our data, the pattern suggested a higher percentage of fetuses with urinary and multiple congenital anomalies exposed to multiple pesticides as compared with those with other anomalies; however, numbers were far too small to make firm conclusions.
Overall, the results of this study show an increased association between fetal death due to congenital anomalies and several classes of pesticides when exposure occurs during the 3rd–8th weeks of pregnancy. The risk was highest for those individuals living within the same square mile as the pesticide application. The plausibility that these associations are causal is enhanced by our use of objective measures of exposure and by the increasing magnitude in the ORs when exposure was limited to relevant biological time periods. Because of the strong correlation among pesticide classes, we were unable to identify which specific pesticide classes are the most likely lethal teratogens.
We thank Andrew Olshan, David Savitz, and Ernest Hodgson for their comments on the manuscript and Lawrence Park for his computer programming assistance. We also thank Steven Samuels, James Singleton, and Susan Lutzenhiser for their contributions to study design, data collection, and database development.
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Keywords:© 2001 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.
fetal death,; pesticides,; congenital anomalies,; phosphates,; pyrethroids,; halogenated hydrocarbons,; carbamates,; endocrine disruptors.