In a study from Ecuador, babies and toddlers born to women employed in the cut-flower industry during pregnancy showed poorer communication and fine motor skills than children whose mothers were not flower workers.

These children were also nearly five times as likely to have vision problems, the study team found.

Pesticides are used heavily in the cut-flower industry, especially organophosphates, carbamates, and dithiocarbamates, and animal studies suggest exposure to these chemicals before birth may impair neurological development both in the womb and in infancy and childhood.

To investigate whether such exposure could be harmful to human fetuses, Dr. Alexis J. Handal of the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and colleagues performed tests to gauge development in 121 children ranging in age from 3 to 23 months. Fifty-three of the children's mothers worked in the cut-flower industry during pregnancy.

These potentially pesticide-exposed children scored 8 percent lower on communication, and 13 percent lower on fine motor skills such as reaching for an object and grabbing it. They were also 4.7 times more likely to have visual acuity problems.

Particularly concerning, Handal noted in an interview with Reuters Health, is the fact that the women who worked in the flower industry made more money, were better nourished, and had better access to health care and day care than those who did not. "These are all factors that should promote an optimal pregnancy and optimal child development and yet we are still seeing the deficits," Handal said.

Pesticide exposure isn't the only factor that might be involved in the developmental deficits, the researchers note. "Long work days, job stress, and difficult work responsibilities where women are on their feet most of the day could contribute to adverse pregnancy outcomes," they note in the journal Epidemiology. "Furthermore, flower laborers work in a greenhouse setting where heat and exhaustion may also play a role in maternal and fetal health."

Large-scale farms growing flowers for export are becoming an increasingly important part of the economies of Ecuador, Colombia, and other developing nations, Handal and her colleagues note in their report. In Ecuador, they add, half of people working in the industry are reproductive-age women. Pregnant women usually work up until five weeks before their baby is due, according to the researchers, while some will even stay on the job until their baby is born.

Given the major role women of reproductive age play in the cut-flower industry, "this is an issue that really needs much more attention being paid to it," Handal said. More research is obviously needed to understand how flower industry jobs might affect the health of women and their children, she added, but governments don't have to wait for all the data to come in before acting to protect workers by implementing fair labor standards. "There are things that can be done now that don't necessarily require all the final evidence."