Researchers have identified new risk factors for a mysterious kidney illness affecting tens of thousands of farm workers worldwide. Their findings have been published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.
Researchers examined 330 sugarcane cutters in Guatemala over the course of a six-month harvest season. More than one-third of the workers showed a decline in kidney function over the course of the harvest, while the other two-thirds of the workers’ kidney function remained the same or improved.
The team discovered that factors including smoking, living in the local community, and low kidney function before employment were associated with a decline in kidney function. The researchers found no association with other health conditions, the amount of water workers drank, sugary drink consumption, or home use of pesticides.
Following worker protection guidelines for rest and hydration set forth by the World Health Organization (WHO), Pantaleon already provides rest breaks, shade, water and electrolyte solutions similar to sports drinks to their employees. Based on the findings of this study, these preventive measures are not sufficient to protect all workers from kidney injury.
Previous studies have identified an illness called “Mesoamerican Nephropathy,” also referred to as Chronic Kidney Disease of Unknown Origin (CKDu). Notably, this new study shows that when a workforce has access to water, rest, and shade, the rates of CKDu onset and kidney injury are lower, and the injury is less severe than that seen in previous studies.
Researchers are focusing future research on delving deeper into understanding the factors that contribute to declining kidney function, such as why workers who live closer to the sugarcane field are more likely to have impaired kidney function at the end of the harvest season. They are also examining why two-thirds of the workers in this study maintained healthy kidney function or improved their kidney function. Her team is collaborating with researchers in the Colorado School of Public Health’s Center for Global Health to design and test ways to improve the health of sugarcane workers and other agricultural workers in the region.