The weed killers and insecticides we spray on farm crops, parks and verges, and our rose bushes, 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-and so can cause a range of chronic conditions especially in developing foetuses, in children and in people who are more exposed to the toxins, like farm workers and those living near farms.
And 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 such toxins
in the air we breathe and in the food
Europe already imports around 38 million tonnes of soy a year-most of which is GM and sprayed with pesticides-but because of consumer resistance, it is 'hidden' in animal feeds consumed by livestock that end up on our dinner plates.1
These alarming threats highlight a lax regulatory regime. The UK's Health and Safety Executive claims on its website that pesticides "may be withdrawn from the market for a number of reasons, most of which do not concern safety".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 household 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 they are entering our homes.
In one study of 89 homes in California, many had very high concentrations of pesticides in their carpets.2
Britons spray around 4,306 tonnes of pesticide in their homes each year, while Americans use 34.5 million kg (76 million lb) on plants and furnishings.3
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 with 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-in contrast to 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; 39 pesticides-including the highly toxic 2,4-D and diquat-have not been assessed for either their safety or impact on human health under new safety regulations and yet 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. But environmental research group Earth Open Source (EOS) says the process is being abused. Data are being manipulated, and 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 in Monsanto's Roundup pesticide as well as others, EOS has uncovered a trail of cover-up, denial and data-massaging to hide the fact that it causes birth defects.
According to EOS, industry researchers were aware of this glyphosate effect as early as in the 1980s, when initial findings were observed 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 this was minimized by redefining birth defects as "variations". A year later, the EU Commission's expert scientific review panel also knew, while the EU Commission itself became aware of these facts in 2002 even as it approved glyphosate use in Europe.
Yet, the public was not told of the true risks posed by glyphosate, and the compound is not likely to be reviewed under the new, more stringent, safety checks until 2030.4
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 11.6 million hectares-around half of Argentina's cultivated land-and 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. Livestock and food crops died and, later, banana trees were deformed and still not bearing edible fruit.5
By 2009, Professor Andres Carrasco of Buenos Aires Medical School, and 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.6 Speaking at a conference at the European Parliament that year, Carrasco said it was common for women living in a GM soy region to suffer up to five miscarriages in a row.7
On countering Carrasco, Monsanto claimed that its Roundup product was declared safe under the so-called good laboratory practice (GLP) rules established by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation 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. The rules 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 don't necessarily follow GLP rules. In fact, independent studies go through a system of peer review and publication that, though far from perfect, is a far more rigorous process than the GLP.
Not surprisingly, one critic has described GLP as "a shield" that the chemical industry uses to protect itself against the findings of independent scientists, who are much more likely than industry scientists to show that a product is harmful.8
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
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 turned blue, and she said, "When I saw my baby like that, I said, 'Enough. This cannot go on.'"10
Even worse reactions were being reported in La Leonesa, the town where Carrasco was attacked. Birth defects 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.11
In Brazil, researchers were seeing the same pattern of birth defects in children born in Petrolina, a city in the S~ao 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.12
A decade earlier, Canada's federal 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 2,110 women living on farms in Ontario who, over the duration of the survey, had 3,936 pregnancies 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 with exposure to phenoxyacetic acid herbicide, and a late miscarriage-up to the 19th week of gestation-was seen in women exposed to glyphosate. For them, the miscarriage risk rose 1.7 times. Women exposed to pesticides after conceiving were also at high risk of late miscarriage, especially if the woman was age 34 years or older.13
A similar pattern has been identified in China, where blood pesticide levels are far higher than those found in Westerners. In an analysis of 187 pregnant women, researchers at Shanghai 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, but there was no effect in women carrying boys.14
Cancer and more
Pesticides don't only cause birth defects and miscarriages. According to a number of independent studies, they also cause cancer, Parkinson's disease, peripheral arterial disease, neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's and asthma.
Cancer in children. 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 through breast milk. Leukaemia appears to arise in children whose mothers were exposed to pesticides during the prenatal period, while brain cancers are more often seen in children whose fathers were exposed. The risks for both types of cancer are significant, say researchers.15
Several studies have also found that children are more susceptible to pesticides used in the home and garden. One review, which analyzed data collected between 1950 and 2009, revealed a direct correlation between childhood leukaemia and pesticide/insecticide use in the home and garden, and with herbicides too.16
Cancer in adults. Adults are not immune to the toxic effects of pesticides, especially if they have been regularly exposed to them on the job. Orchard workers, who are in daily contact with pesticides, are more likely to develop brain cancer, for example. One study of 432 people with brain tumours discovered that 389 of them had worked in an orchard.17 Prostate cancer is also more prevalent in those living 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.18 Even those who use pesticides in their homes on their potted plants double their risk of brain cancer, a French study discovered.19
Parkinson's disease. Pesticides like 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 with exposure to all three pesticides.20 Even for those who don't work on farms, pesticides in the air we breathe can cause a range of neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and multiple sclerosis, Spanish researchers have discovered. In a study of 17,429 patients with neurodegenerative disease, rates were far higher in areas with more intensive use of pesticides.21
Peripheral arterial disease. Pesticides play a significant role in the development of peripheral arterial disease, especially among the obese. When levels of five different organochlorine pesticides were measured in 2,032 patients, the risk was increased with all of them, and by more than twofold with the insecticide dieldrin (now mostly banned). Pesticides had no effect in people who weren't obese.22
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.23
Mental development. Pesticides can also affect cognitive development and reasoning, say researchers who analyzed parental exposures to pesticides in 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.24
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 2014.25 To protect these huge 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 like the GLP and ILSI (see box, below). Any worrying results can be 'lost' or diminished by changing definitions, as happened with glyphosate.
But even without the interference of biased groups, safety trials are inadequate, relying almost exclusively on laboratory tests on experimental animals. Once a pesticide comes into use on our farms, gardens and parks, and in our homes, its harmful effects on our health are insidious. There's often a slow build-up over time, so no one can be absolutely sure that pesticide is
Only when a massive biochemical experiment takes place, as in Argentina, do we see the true harmful potential
of the toxins we breathe in and ingest
The pesticides industry is a major contributor to the epidemic of chronic disease that began early in the last century. Many pesticide manufacturers also have corporate affiliations with pharmaceutical companies and together they invariably put profits before people; in this they are being aided by regulators who we pay to look after our health and wellbeing.
Life without pesticides
Intensive farming is dependent on pesticides, herbicides and fungicides to achieve high crop yields. 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 practices that harness processes that are more natural.
Ladybirds ('ladybugs' in the US), for example, are the natural enemy of many insects, so encouraging their spread offers a non-toxic antidote.
A variety of non-chemical solutions can be employed by farmers to manage-rather than eliminate-pests.
The EU, which is also keen to encourage the reduced use of pesticides on farms and in homes, has created a directive on the sustainable use of pesticides (SUD), which encourages the wider dissemination of information on pesticides to the public while minimizing the use of pesticides through IPM.
SUD is a voluntary code that individual states can adopt; the UK government announced its action plan to implement SUD in 2013.1
In the home, always wash all vegetables and fruits before consumption-even if you're buying organic-and use non-toxic sprays for your potted plants.
For information on natural pesticides for indoor and garden use, visit www.livingwithbugs.com/natural_pesticides.html. For natural fertilizers, visit www.thenaturalgardener.co.uk.
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 like Monsanto, Unilever, Nestl'e and DuPont.
ILSI experts work closely with 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. These papers almost never report on the safety of chemicals but, instead, continually propose changes to risk-assessment procedures.1
The World Health Organization (WHO) has been somewhat 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".2
REFERENCES MAIN TEXT
1 Institute of Science in Society. ISIS Report 06/10/10
2 Environ Health Perspect, 2011; 119: 970-6
3 Pediatr Clin North Am, 2001; 48: 1185-98
4 Antoniou M et al. Roundup and birth defects: Is the public being kept in the dark? Earth Open Source, June 2011
5 New Scientist, 2004; 182: 40-3
6 Chem Res Toxicol, 2010; 23: 1586-95
7 GMO-Free Europe 2010 6th European Conference of GMO-Free Regions. Brussels and Ghent, September 16-18, 2010
8 J Epidemiol Community Health, 2011; 65: 475-6
9 'Threats deny community access to research', Amnesty International, 12 August 2010
10 www.gmwatch.eu/ index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=12486:reports-viviana-peralta-interview
11 Comision Provincial de Invesigacion de Contaminantes del Agua [Provincial Research Commission of Water Pollutants], 2010
12 Rev Bras Ginecol Obstet, 2011; 33: 20-6
13 Environ Health Perspect, 2001; 109: 851-7
14 Environ Int, 2012; 42: 100-4
15 Occup Environ Med, 2011; 68: 694-702
16 Cien Saude Colet, 2011; 16: 1915-31
17 Indian J Med Paediatr Oncol, 2010; 31: 110-20
18 Am J Epidemiol, 2011; 173: 1280-8
19 Occup Environ Med, 2007; 64: 509-14
20 Eur J Epidemiol, 2011; 26: 547-55
21 Toxicol Appl Pharmacol, 2011; 256: 379-85
22 Atherosclerosis, 2011; 218: 200-6
23 Curr Opin Allergy Clin Immunol, 2011; 11: 90-6
24 Environ Health Perspect, 2011; 119: 1182-8
REFERENCES LIFE WITHOUT PESTICIDES
1 Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA). UK National Action Plan for the Sustainable Use of Pesticides (Plant Protection Products), February 2013
1 Robinson C. Europe's pesticide and food safety regulators: Who do they work for? Earth Open Source, 2011
2 Ibid, page 11