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Scary, scary – how does your garden grow?

Reading time: 11 minutes

The weed killers and insecticides we spray on farm crops, our rose bushes, and parks and verges can cause cancer-especially leukaemia in children, brain tumours and prostate cancer-as well as birth defects and arterial damage, independent scientists have established. They also suspect a link with Parkinson’s disease, asthma and miscarriages.
Many pesticides are endocrine disruptors-they interfere with normal hormone production-which can cause a range of chronic conditions, especially in developing fetuses, in children and in people who are more exposed to the toxins, such as farm workers and those living near farms.
The exposure levels will only increase, environmentalists fear. If pesticide-resistant GM (genetically modified) crops are allowed to be grown throughout the European Union-as seems increasingly likely-farmers will be able to use more pesticides on their land, which means higher levels of the toxins in the air we breathe and in the food we eat.
Europe already imports around 38 million tonnes of soy a year-most of which is GM, and sprayed by pesticides-but because of consumer resistance, it is ‘hidden’ in animal feeds consumed by livestock that end up on our dinner plates (Institute of Science in Society, ISIS Report 06/10/10).
These alarming threats highlight a lax regulatory regime. Indeed, the UK’s Health and Safety Executive claims on its website that pesticides “may be withdrawn from the market for a number of reasons, most of which do not concern safety”.

Close to home

Pesticide exposure is not a problem limited to farm workers and those living in remote rural locations. Our homes and schools also harbour these pollutants. The pesticides we spray on our potted plants and furnishings are creating an environmental hazard that is every bit as dangerous as that faced by the farm worker and rural dweller.
We are also using more powerful insecticides on our plants in the garden: one Amazon reviewer described Monsanto’s brand-leading herbicide Roundup as “the Darth Vader of weed killers”. The spray settles on our clothes and shoes, which is another way in which they are coming into our homes. In one study of 89 homes
in California, many had very high concentrations of pesticides in the carpets (Environ Health Perspect, 2011; Feb 17; epub ahead of print).
Britons spray around 4306 tonnes of pesticide in their homes each year, while Americans use 34.5 million kg (76 million lb) on plants and furnishings (Pediatr Clin North Am, 2001; 48: 1185-98, ix).

Easy does it

Getting approval for a pesticide or insecticide is a relatively inexpensive procedure. Unless a product contains one of the banned active substances on a very short list of a dozen such agents-most of which were withdrawn because they are carcinogenic (cancer-causing)-it is likely to gain approval.
Even compounds that have a dubious safety record-certainly enough to stop a pharmaceutical application in its tracks-are likely to be approved. The licensing of a pesticide that contains only approved compounds can cost as little as lb20,000 through the UK licensing process for use on Britain’s farms, parks and gardens. One that contains a new active ingredient can be approved for around lb200,000 compared with approval costs ranging from lb20 million to lb140 million for a drug.
Not surprisingly, regulators have been swamped by applications. Pesticide manufacturers are taking full advantage of an overloaded EU approvals regime, and 39 pesticides-including the highly toxic 2,4-D and diquat-that have not been assessed for their safety or impact on human health under new safety regulations are today being used throughout Europe. This regulatory ‘free ride’ is expected to last until 2015, at which time, the regulators hope to have caught up with the backlog.

Bring in the experts

In assessing the safety of compounds and setting dosages that are supposedly not a health hazard, regulators depend on evidence from expert groups. However, environmental research group Earth Open Source (EOS) says the process is being abused. Data are being manipulated, and the pesticide manufacturers are funding supposedly ‘independent’ groups that command enormous influence among regulators, EOS claims.
In one instance concerning the approval of glyphosate, a chemical compound found, amongst others, in Monsanto’s Roundup pesticide, EOS has uncovered a trail of cover-up, denial and massaging of data to hide the fact that it causes birth defects. According to EOS, industry researchers were aware of glyphosate’s effects as early as in the 1980s, when these initial findings were seen in laboratory animals given high doses. By 1993, industry researchers had discovered that glyphosate had
the same effects at low doses, a conclusion also drawn by Germany’s government scientists in 1998, but which were minimized by redefining birth defects as “variations”. A year later, the EU Commission’s expert scientific review panel also knew-and the EU Commission itself became aware of these facts in 2002 when it approved glyphosate’s use in Europe.
The public was not told of the true risks posed by glyphosate, and the compound is not likely to be reviewed under the new, and more stringent, safety checks until 2030 (‘Roundup and birth defects: Is the public being kept in the dark?’ Earth Open Source, June 2011).

The Argentine link

Glyphosate’s link with birth defects may have gone unnoticed had it not been for a massive biochemical experiment in Argentina in 1999. GM Roundup Ready(R) soybeans were planted on 19 million hectares-around half of Argentina’s cultivated land-and, last year, was sprayed with 200 million litres of Roundup.
In 2002, the year the EU renewed glyphosate’s safety licence, doctors started to report an epidemic of health effects in areas surrounding the farms. Common problems included birth defects, infertility, stillbirths, miscarriages and cancers. Live-stock and food crops died, and the local streams were filled with dead fish (New Sci, 2004; 182: 40-3).
By 2009, Professor Andres Carrasco of Buenos Aires Medical School, and the lead researcher of Argentina’s National Council of Scientific and Technical Research, had ‘gone public’ about his discovery that glyphosate and Roundup causes birth defects in laboratory animals at very low doses. He published his findings a year later (Chem Res Toxicol, 2010; 23: 1586-95). Speaking at a conference at the European Parliament last year, Carrasco said it was common for women living in a GM soy region to experience up to five miscarriages in a row (GMO-Free Europe 2010 6th European Conference of GMO-Free Regions, Brussels and Ghent, September 16-18, 2010).
In countering Carrasco, Monsanto claims that its Roundup product has been declared safe under the so-called good laboratory practice (GLP) rules established by the Organization
for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a body that seeks to promote international trade. GLP rules lay down how an experiment should be carried out with the aim of increasing traceability and accountability. They are not a measure or guarantee of good science. But they are used by industry and regulators to dismiss the worrying findings of independent, non-industry studies such as Carrasco’s, which are not done according to GLP rules. Indeed, independent studies go through
a system of peer review and publication that, though far from perfect, is a far more rigorous process than GLP rules.
Not surprisingly, one critic has described GLP as “a shield” that the chemical industry uses to protect itself against the findings of independent science, which is much more likely than industry scientists to show that a product is harmful (J Epidemiol Community Health, 2011; 65: 475-6).
Other attempts to silence Carrasco have been more sinister. Four representatives of Argentina’s crop protection trade group CASAFE reportedly tried to raid his laboratory, and he was also the focus of an orchestrated violent attack in which three people were seriously injured when he went
to speak in La Leonesa, an agricultural town in Argentina. Carrasco escaped injury by locking himself in his car (‘Threats deny community access to research’, Amnesty International, 12 August 2010).
Months after Carrasco’s findings were published in 2010, residents of Santa Fe province, one of Argentina’s GM soy-producing regions, obtained a court order banning the use of Roundup sprays near homes. Viviana Peralta, a housewife who spearheaded the lawsuit, said she and her family needed hospital care after fields near her home had been sprayed. Her newborn baby had turned blue, and she said, “When I saw my baby like that, I said, ‘Enough. This cannot go on'” ( index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=12486:reports-viviana-peralta-interview).
Even worse reactions were being reported in La Leonesa, the town where Carrasco had been attacked. Birth defects had increased fourfold in the region around the town between 2000, when pesticide spraying began, and 2009, and the rate of childhood cancers tripled over the same period. A state commission report identified glyphosate as a major cause (Comision Provincial de Invesigacion de Contaminantes del Agua [Provincial Commission of Investigation of Contaminants in Water], 2010).

Birth defects

Brazilian researchers were seeing the same pattern of birth defects in children born in Petrolina, a city in the Sao Francisco valley, where pesticides were being sprayed. Children were more likely to be born with defects-usually affecting the musculoskeletal and nervous systems-if one or both parents had been exposed to pesticides. Other problems included poor grades at school, low weight, premature birth and chronic diseases (Rev Bras Ginecol Obstet, 2011; 33: 20-6).
A decade earlier, Canada’s health department-Health Canada-was also becoming concerned about the impact of pesticides on healthy births, especially among farm workers. The researchers gathered data from 2110 women living on farms in Ontario who, over the duration of the survey, had 3936 preg-nancies and 395 miscarriages. They found a direct correlation with pesticide exposure. The women’s risk of early miscarriage increased by one-and-a-half times if they had been exposed to phenoxyacetic acid herbicide, and a late miscarriage-up to the 19th week of gestation-occurred in women exposed to glyphosate. For them, the miscarriage risk rose 1.7 times. Women who were exposed to pesticides after conceiving were also at high risk of a late miscarriage, especially if the woman was age 34 years or older (Environ Health Perspect, 2001; 109: 851-7).
A similar pattern has been recognized in China, where blood pesticide levels are far higher than those found in Westerners. In an analysis of 189 pregnant women, researchers at Shanghai’s Jiao Tong University School of Medicine discovered a direct correlation between duration of pregnancy and levels of organophosphate pesticide in the women’s urine. Pregnancies were around two weeks shorter in women with the highest concentrations, although there was no effect in women carrying boys (Environ Int, 2011; May 20, epub ahead of print).

Cancer and more

Pesticides don’t only cause birth defects and miscarriages. According to a range of independent studies, they also cause cancer, Parkinson’s disease, peripheral arterial disease, neuro-degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, and asthma.

  • Cancer in children. Cases of cancers caused by pesticides appear to be especially prevalent in children, possibly because of their lower body weight, and their exposure while in the womb and from breast milk. Leukaemia appears to arise in children whose mothers were exposed to pesticides during the prenatal period, while brain cancers happen more often in children whose fathers were exposed. The risks for both types of cancer were significant, say researchers (Occup Environ Med, 2011; May 23, epub ahead of print).

Several studies have also found that children are more susceptible to pesticides used in the home and garden. One, which analyzed data collated between 1950 and 2009, discovered a direct correlation between childhood leukaemia and pesticides/insecticides used in the home and garden, and with herbicides (Cien Saude Colet, 2011; 16: 1915-31).

  • Cancer in adults. Adults are not immune to the toxic effects of pesticides, especially if they have been regularly exposed to them in their work. Orchard workers, who are in daily contact with pesticides, are more likely to develop brain cancer, for example. One study of 432 patients with brain tumours discovered that 389 of them had worked in an orchard (Indian J Med Paediatr Oncol, 2010; 31: 110-20). Prostate cancer is also more prevalent in homes that are close to farms in areas of intensive agriculture. A study in California’s Central Valley estimates that the risk rises by up to 1.64 times in areas of intensive farming (Am J Epidemiol, 2011; 173: 1280-8). Even those who use pesticides in their homes on their potted plants double their risk of brain cancer, a French study discovered (Occup Environ Med, 2007; 64: 509-14).
  • Parkinson’s disease. Pest-icides such as ziram, maneb and paraquat increase the risk of Parkinson’s by up to three times, say researchers who analyzed the homes and workplaces of 362 Parkinson’s patients living in central California. The risk was worse at workplaces-usually farm buildings-and when a person was exposed to all three pesticides (Eur J Epidemiol, 2011; April 20, epub ahead of print). Even for those who do not work on farms, pesticides in the air we breathe can be a cause of a range of neurodegenerative disorders, such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis, Spanish researchers have discovered. In a study of 17,429 patients with a neuro-degenerative disease, rates were far higher in areas where there was more intensive use of pesticides (Toxicol Appl Pharmacol, 2011; May 13, epub ahead of print).
  • Peripheral arterial disease. Pesticides play a significant role in the development of peripheral arterial disease, especially among those who are obese. Levels of five different pesticides were measured in 2032 patients, and the risk increased nearly twofold with the pesticide component trans-nonachlor. Pesticides did not affect people who were not obese (Athersclerosis, 2011; May 10, epub ahead of print).
  • Asthma. Pesticides can increase the risk of asthma, and bring on an attack in asthma sufferers, by increasing bronchial hyperresponsiveness, say researchers. The main culprit appears to be household pesticides from spray cans and aerosols (Curr Opin Allergy Clin Immunol, 2011; 11: 90-6).
  • Mental development. Pest-icides can also affect cognitive development and reasoning, researchers discovered, when they analyzed parental exposure to pesticides in a group of 404 children born in New York between 1998 and 2002. Problems with reasoning continued into childhood, and affected those whose parents had the highest levels of pesticides in their blood (Environ Health Perspect, 2011; April 21, epub ahead of print).

Profits before people

The pesticide industry is very big business. It generates around $45 billion in global sales every year, and these are expected to rise by 2.9 per cent each year until 2014 (‘World Pesticides to 2014’. Freedonia Group).
To protect these vast sales-many of which are made to the developing countries, where environmental and safety controls are poor-the chemicals industry ensures that it’s part of the regulatory process through initiatives such as the GLP and ILSI (see box, above). Any worrying results can be ‘lost’ or diminished by changing the study’s definitions, as happened with glyphosate.
However, even without the interference of biased groups, safety trials are inadequate, relying almost exclusively on laboratory tests on experimental animals.
Once it becomes used on our farms, gardens and parks, and in our homes, a pesticide’s harm
ful effects on our health are insidious. They often arise as a slow buildup over time, such that no one can be absolutely sure that pesticide is the culprit.
Only when a massive bio-chemical experiment takes place, as happened in Argentina, do we see the true harmful potential of the toxins we breathe in and ingest every day.
The pesticides industry is a major contributor to the epidemic of chronic disease that began early in the last century. Many of the pesticide manufacturers have
some corporate affiliation to a pharmaceutical company; together they invariably put profits before people and, in this, they are also aided by regulators who we pay
to look after our health and wellbeing.
Bryan Hubbard

Factfile: Life without pesticides

Intensive farming is dependent on pesticides, herbicides and fungicides to achieve a high crop yield. Farmers and pesticide manufacturers might argue that health hazards are an unfortunate price we must pay if we are all to have enough food to eat-but there is an alternative.
Environmentalists are urging farmers to adopt the principles of integrated pest management (IPM), which encourages the use of less-toxic products and adopting practices that harness processes that are more natural.

  • Ladybirds (‘ladybugs’ in the US) are the natural enemy of many insects, for example, and encouraging their spread provides a non-toxic antidote.
  • There is also a variety of non-chemical solutions the farmer can employ to manage-rather than eliminate-pests.
  • The EU is also keen to encourage a reduced use of pesticides on farms and in homes. It has created a directive on the sustainable use of pesticides (SUD), which encourages the wider dissemination of information about pesticides to the public while minimizing the useof pesticides through the adoption of IPM. SUD is a voluntary code that individual states can adopt; unfortunately, David Cameron’s UK government has chosen to ignore it.
  • In the home, always wash all vegetables and fruits before consumption-even if you’re buying organic-and use a non-toxic spray for your potted plants.

Factfile: The influence of ILSI

The International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) is a highly influential ‘scientific’ group that also happens to be almost entirely funded by multinational pesticide, chemical, GM seed and food companies such as Monsanto, Unilever, Nestl’e and DuPont.
ILSI experts work closely with the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) regulators to shape and redesign risk-assessment procedures for its benefactors’ products. EFSA regulators are also associated with ILSI affiliates in publishing papers in scientific journals. However, these papers almost never report on the safety of chemicals but, instead, continually propose changes to risk-assessment procedures (‘Europe’s pesticide and food safety regulators: Who do they work for?’ Earth Open Source, 2011).
The World Health Organization (WHO) has been a little more cautious in choosing its friends. In 2006, it barred ILSI from participating in the setting up of microbiological and chemical standards for food and water because of the Institute’s industry funding. The US National Resources Defense Council is also distrustful of the ILSI. Its senior scientist, Jennifer Sass, has said that ILSI “has demonstrated a history of putting the interests of its exclusively corporate membership ahead of science and health concerns” (


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