Pesticides and Cancer

Pesticides and Cancer

In its 1990 report entitled Pesticides, Chemicals and Health, the British Medical Association (BMA) detailed studies that had linked pesticide use and various forms of cancer among farmers, including prostate cancer, lymphomas, myeloma, leukaemia and soft tissue sarcomas.

Pesticides and cancer

by Georgina Downs [UK Pesticides Campaign

Georgina Downs runs the UK Pesticides campaign to highlight the adverse health and environmental effects of pesticides. She has lived next to regularly sprayed fields for 22 years and has long-standing health problems. This article may be of particular interest to those people wishing to have a cancer prevention programme. Although the whole issue of the dangers of pesticides is contentious, if you are serious about preventing cancer, pesticides are an area you need to know about.

Georgina was the first to identify serious fundamental flaws regarding the bystander risk assessment and for the last five years has presented a case to the Government for a change in the regulations and legislation governing crop spraying. She has called for an immediate ban on crop-spraying and the use of pesticides near to people’s homes, schools, workplaces and any other places of human habitation and for direct public access to the information on the chemicals sprayed on crops.

She has produced 2 videos Pesticide Exposures for People in Agricultural Areas - Part 1 Pesticides in the Air; Part 2 The Hidden Costs to illustrate chemical exposure and the effects on people in rural areas Georgina has recently won the prestigious Andrew Lees Memorial Award at the British Environment Media Awards and was also a nominee for  Campaigner of the Year in the Observer Ethical Awards 2006. The Farmers Weekly included Georgina in their list of the Top 20 power players in UK farming following the impact of her campaign.

The link between cancer and pesticides continues to be contentious. In its report in 1990 entitled Pesticides, Chemicals and Health, the British Medical Association (BMA) detailed studies that had linked pesticide use and various forms of cancer among farmers, including prostate cancer, lymphomas, myeloma, leukaemia and soft tissue sarcomas.

The link between cancer and pesticides continues to be contentious

Many studies have also linked pesticides to non-occupationally exposed groups such as rural residents and communities living near regularly sprayed fields. One US study found high brain cancer rates in people living near cranberry agricultural fields in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Results showed that living within 2,600 feet of the cranberry growing area resulted in twice the risk for all brain cancers and nearly a 7-fold increased risk for a type of brain cancer known as astrocytoma (Ref 1).

Pesticides, by their very nature, are designed to kill living organisms. They include insecticides, herbicides,fungicides and biocides, amongst others.

The UK has a substantial crop protection industry. Sales of pesticides in 2004 were 467 million representing 31,500 tonnes of active substances. Agricultural and horticultural uses accounted for

Pesticides, by their very nature, are designed to kill living organisms

86% of the value of sales and 80% of the amount used, whilst garden, (i.e. weedkillers), household (i.e. insect sprays, headlice and pet flea treatments etc.), forestry and amenity uses (including highways, railways, airports, industrial sites, parks,landscape and sports turf etc.) accounted for the balance ( ref 2).

People can be exposed to pesticides via air, water, contaminated surfaces and food, amongst other sources, and the routes of exposure include through the lungs (inhalation), the skin (dermal absorption) and the eyes, as well as ingestion (orally). Once pesticides have been absorbed, they can enter the blood stream and be carried throughout the body.

Many pesticides have neurotoxic, carcinogenic and hormone-disrupting capabilities. Studies have shown that very low doses of pesticides can disrupt hormone systems at levels significantly lower than previous research considered safe (refs 3, 4)

The safety data sheet for each product shows how hazardous these chemicals are via inhalation with warnings such as, Very toxic by inhalation, Do not breathe spray; fumes; vapour, Harmful, possible risk of irreversible effects through inhalation, May cause cancer by inhalation.D2

Babies, children, pregnant women, the elderly and those with pre-existing medical problems are particularly vulnerable to the effects of pesticides. I continue to receive reports from all over the world of clusters of cancers in rural communities where pesticides are regularly sprayed. These include cancers of the breast, stomach, brain, skin and prostate, amongst others, as well as reports of leukaemia and Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Reports of this nature have gone on for decades and increasing numbers are related to young children. In addition, I also receive reports of cancer and leukaemia in dogs and other domesticated animals and even cows based in fields next to sprayed ones have been known to develop these conditions.

The Government has recently responded to last year’s report by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP) entitled Crop Spraying and the Health of Residents and Bystanders. The RCEP had concluded that pesticide spraying is a potential health risk and that chronic illnesses and diseases reported by people in rural areas, including cancer, leukaemia and Parkinson’s, could be associated with pesticide exposure (ref 5).

The RCEP concluded that none of the Government agencies involved with pesticides appear to have made any serious attempt to gather data on the chronic effects of pesticides on human health. This was the same criticism that had been given by the BMA 15 years earlier, as well as an even earlier report on pesticides by the Commons Agriculture Select  Committee, in 1987.
The Government response, however,has rejected the criticisms of the existing system; refused to acknowledge the health risks of pesticides and played down any link between pesticides and chronic diseases (ref 6)

 This is in stark contrast to the statement recently made by the European Commission on 12th July 2006 in relation to a new EU Thematic Strategy on pesticides, which acknowledged that, Long term exposure to pesticides can lead to serious disturbances to the immune system, sexual disorders, cancers, sterility, birth defects, damage to the nervous system and genetic damage. (ref 7 )

The significance of these consequences requires the adoption of a precautionary approach to health and to cancer prevention, as the public must be protected from avoidable and unnecessary exposures and risks to their health, especially in relation to babies, children and other vulnerable groups.

In the next edition I will look in more detail at some of the studies, as well as
case histories, linking pesticides to various forms of cancer.D4

For more information on Georgina’s campaign visit the UK Pesticides Campaign website at Georgina can be contacted at [email protected] or Tel: 01243 773846

Go to: Pesticides, herbicides and links to cancer


1. Aschengrau A, Ozonoff D, Coogan P et al.Cancer Risk and Residential Proximity to Cranberry Cultivation in Massachusetts.American Journal of Public Health, 86(9): 1289-1296. 1996.
2. Pesticides Safety Directorate (PSD),Department of Agriculture and RuralDevelopment, Scottish Executive, Welsh Assembly Government, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). Pesticides and the Environment - A Strategy for the Sustainable Use of Plant Protection Products and Strategy Action Plans. PB 11721. March 2006.
3. Hayes, T.B, et al. Hermaphroditic, demasculinized frogs after exposure to the herbicide atrazine at low ecologically relevant doses. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 99:5476-5480. 16th April 2002.
4. Hayes, T.B, et al, Atrazine-Induced Hermaphroditism at 0.1 ppb in American Leopard Frogs (Rana pipiens): Laboratory and Field Evidence, Environmental Health Perspectives Volume 111, Number 4. April 2003.
5. RCEP (Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution). Crop Spraying and the Health of Residents and Bystanders. Available at: 22nd September 2005.
6. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution report on crop spraying and the health of residents and bystanders - Government response. PB12024. July 2006. Available at:
7. Q&A relating to the EU Thematic Strategy on pesticides see:-

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