The Minnesota Department of Health is conducting a study on chemicals that may harm development in children, and volunteer families from Becker County are among those taking part.

The Healthy Rural and Urban Kids Project measures preschoolers’ exposure to metals, air pollution, diesel exhaust and different agricultural and home pesticides through urine samples provided by the kids along with brief surveys taken by their parents during normally-scheduled Early Childhood Screenings.

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The study's researchers are testing kids from three rural counties in Minnesota - Becker, Todd and Wadena - as well as kids from two urban zip codes in Minneapolis.

The recruitment portion of the study was just recently completed, with more than 230 preschoolers taking part. Participation in the study was entirely voluntary, and the names of participants are not being released. Urine samples that were provided are being lab tested over the next few months, and each participating family will receive their individual test results this winter; by next summer, the full results of the study will be shared with communities.

Jessica Nelson, PhD, the primary researcher behind the study, said Becker, Todd and Wadena counties were chosen because of concerns about pesticide use and groundwater contamination in this “Central Sands Area” of Minnesota. The study tests for chemicals that can be found in some sources of drinking water, in the air, and in food and other products used in and around the home.

“We were initially contacted by some members of the community who had concerns about the use of pesticides in agriculture around the area - the area has a lot of potatoes, for example, and there have been concerns about drifts and what people might be exposed to,” Nelson said. “We also know pesticides are widely used in homes, and around homes, and we also know that the area has certain metals in groundwater, which can be a concern for people with private wells.”

Kids between the ages of three and six are being tested. This study is the first to focus on preschoolers, but it’s part of a larger Minnesota Department of Health project that has been around since 2007, called “Minnesota Biomonitoring: Chemicals in People.” The biomonitoring project measures levels of chemicals in Minnesotans through blood, urine and hair samples, and monitors whether exposures differ between groups and over time. The Healthy Rural and Urban Kids Project is its most recent initiative.

Nelson said this latest study is intended to help communities learn whether more action is needed to protect young children from being exposed to harmful chemicals. Chemicals tested for include metals like arsenic, chromium, manganese, nickel and cobalt; pesticides like pyrethroids, carbaryl and mancozeb; air pollution markers like 1-Nitropyrene; and others.

The implications of the study will depend on what the test results show, but in any case, sharing information with communities about how to reduce exposure to chemicals is a big part of the project.

“We want to help protect kids’ health and reduce exposures (to chemicals),” Nelson said. “We see this project as a first step in getting information and addressing any concerns that people have. A really important part of what we do is sharing results with families and back to communities...on how to reduce exposure to the chemicals.”

Nelson said there’s been a lot of initial interest in the study, and the researchers’ goals for participation were easily exceeded. The state health department worked with local partners to recruit families; here in Becker County, that local partner was Becker County Community Health, which conducts Early Childhood Screenings for the Detroit Lakes and Frazee-Vergas school districts.

Annie Vigen, who helped recruit participants for the study in Becker County, said local families showed an eagerness to sign up, and she’s heard parents say they’re curious to find out the results - their own kids’ results, as well as in general. Participating families received a small stipend for their efforts.

“We’re excited about Healthy Kids (the Healthy Rural and Urban Kids Project),” said Nelson. “It’s been really successful so far, and it’s been great to work with our local partners… I have a lot of faith in our local partners to help figure out the implications (of this study) and what next steps might need to be taken.”