Becker County was part of a study to check for chemicals in preschoolers. Here's what was found.

“We looked at diet, pesticides on lawns, drinking from private wells, living on a farm or having a parent who works on a farm..."

Preschool kids from Becker, Wadena and Todd counties participated in a Minnesota Department of Health study on environmental chemicals.
Minnesota Department of Health

Some surprising findings came out of a Minnesota Health Department pilot study that looked at little kids and chemicals in Becker, Wadena and Todd counties.

The 2018 project, which also looked at an urban area in the Twin Cities, found that chemical exposure is a potential concern for children around the state, but it depends a lot on location, ethnic group, and household practices.

In this area, “participation was great — we really credit our partners in Becker, Todd and Wadena counties,” said Jessica Nelson, director of the biomonitoring program at the Minnesota Department of Health.

The Healthy Rural and Urban Kids Project measured 21 chemicals in the urine of 232 children from communities in Becker, Wadena and Todd counties, as well as neighborhoods in North Minneapolis.

Study was launched because of local concerns

Nelson said both rural and urban areas have long had concerns about potential exposures to chemicals in their environments, and the project was developed to respond to those concerns.


The chemicals tested in the project can be measured in urine (yes, that meant parents getting their little kids to pee in a container) and those 21 chemicals can tell scientists something about potential exposure to air pollution, metals, and pesticides.

As part of their Early Childhood Screening visits, children whose families consented were enrolled in the project. The State Health Department partnered with the local public health agencies of Becker, Todd, and Wadena counties and Minneapolis Public Schools to offer participation to families in multiple languages.

In this area, the study included 41 kids from Becker County, 49 kids from Wadena County and 38 kids from Todd County, with an average age of about 3, and an average family income of about $75,000.

In the North Minneapolis portion of the study, the average age was 5 or 6, and the average family income was about $25,000.

In this area, there was concern in the community about pesticide drift and potential chemicals in private drinking wells, she said.

“We looked at diet, pesticides on lawns, drinking from private wells, living on a farm or having a parent who works on a farm – none were linked to higher pesticide levels (in kids),” she said.

However, children from Becker, Wadena and Todd counties had higher urine levels of one pesticide compared to urban children (but not higher than the U.S. average in children). This pesticide, called 2,4-D, is an herbicide used on some agricultural crops and for lawn treatment.

Minnesota's first look at chemicals in little kids

It was Minnesota’s first biomonitoring project focused on preschool-age children. “This was the first time we could do this in such a targeted way,” Nelson said. But it won’t be the last: The state’s new Healthy Kids Minnesota program received a five-year grant from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, totaling just over $4 million. That statewide study will involve urine-testing kids for 50 chemicals.


““This bigger effort, that’s what’s needed,” she said. “There’s a lot of interest in states to do this – it’s a good way to get a measure on a population, especially a vulnerable group.”

Public health officials hope the pilot project leads to strategies to protect children from exposure to environmental chemicals that may impact their health, Nelson said. “These chemicals don’t hang around in the body, they’re excreted in urine and usually reflect quite recent exposure.”

Children’s developing bodies are especially vulnerable to chemicals in the environment, and “these results are helping us learn about potential ways Minnesota kids may be coming in contact with certain chemicals,” she added. “Having a better understanding of this gives us a solid foundation for developing new approaches to limit harmful exposures.”

Incense can be a problem

One of the most unexpected findings was a spike in air pollution chemicals among kids whose families had used incense in the home recently. That wasn’t really on anybody’s radar, and it “was probably the most surprising to me personally,” Nelson said.

The high arsenic levels in kids (mostly in north Minneapolis) who ate rice frequently, sometimes multiple times a day, was also surprising and alarming. That can be reduced by buying rice from safer sources.

Each family that participated got individual information on the results, she said. “A big part of this study was to help families lower exposure to these chemicals,” she added.

The project found that chemical exposures differed across rural and urban areas and among different groups:

  • Children from the urban area had higher urine levels of air pollution chemicals compared to kids from the rural areas and the U.S. average in children. These chemicals are part of a large class of chemicals made during combustion called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or PAHs.
  • Children who ate white and brown rice frequently had higher urine arsenic levels than those who did not eat rice frequently. Wild rice was not included in the study, and is not believed to be a problem.
  • Children from the urban area whose family recently used a pesticide  in the home had higher urine levels of a pesticide chemical than children whose family did not use a home pesticide. Finding this pesticide chemical indicates exposure to synthetic pyrethroids - insecticides associated with home pesticide sprays, bug bombs, mosquito sprays, and some farming practices.

“We’ve learned so much from the 2018 project,” Nelson said. “We keep a list of chemicals we are most concerned about with public health, but we don’t have a lot of information about what chemicals are in children.”
The new study, which actually launched last year in southeastern Minnesota and Minneapolis, looks at 50 chemicals in young children.


The Minnesota Health Department lab system has “developed a lot more capacity to test for these chemicals,” Nelson said. “The point is to more systematically move across the state to include more kids and more chemicals. Each year we’ll do a new non-metro area and five areas in the metro.”

For more detailed findings, see the Healthy Rural and Urban Kids Community Report on the Minnesota Department of Health website.

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