Pesticides and their links to Cancer

Changing your diet to beat cancer

By Georgina Downs

UK Pesticides 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. 

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.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 86% of the value of sales and 80% of the amount used, whilst garden, (ie. weedkillers), household (ie. 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.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.

There are a number of different pesticide groups, including organochlorines (OCs), organophosphates (OPs), carbamates, pyrethroids and acid herbicides, amongst others.

The current method of assessing the risks to public health from crop-spraying assumes that exposure will only be to one individual pesticide at any time. Yet pesticides are rarely used individually, but are often used in mixtures or “cocktails” sprayed on different fields at the same time; on the same field at different times; as well on different fields at different times. The long term effects of all these mixtures have not been assessed.

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.3, 4

The sa fety 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.” 

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, bowel, lung, throat, 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.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.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.” 7

A short video that accompanied the release of the EU Thematic Strategy on pesticides again completely contradicted the UK Government’s dismissal of any links with pesticides and cancer, amongst other chronic diseases, as the video pointed out that in a hospital in Leuven, Belgium, the department of haematology has "...established a link between these substances and lymphoma-or lymph cancer." 8, 9  

Professor Marc Boogaerts from the hospital states "I am deeply convinced that pesticides can cause cancer. There are many studies on animals, many epidemiologic studies on humans pointing directly to this fact…The conclusion in Belgium was that the rise in lymphoma cases...could be due to increased exposure to pesticides some 10 to 20 years ago so we are paying the price for a dramatic increase in pesticides use in the 70s and 80s; in the 90s and in the years 2000 we are paying the price by having more cases of cancer." 8, 9

However, after such strong comments the transcript/video then misses the whole point of the problem, as the next line says, “The European Commission’s strategy offers a solution for the future. It is not a question of banning pesticides, but of controlling their use, minimizing the risks to health and the environment, improving controls and monitoring and encouraging alternative solutions.”  8, 9

This is not the solution! Farmers cannot control pesticides once they are airborne contaminants. Therefore the problem regarding the risks and adverse health impacts of pesticides is not really from the misuse, abuse or illegal use of pesticides, but about the widespread public exposure to over 31,000 tonnes of pesticides that are legally allowed to be sprayed on UK farmland every year. Long-term exposure to pesticide particles and vapours in the air, precipitation, reactivation and long-range transportation are all out of the control of farmers and can only be prevented by changes to existing policies that focus on eliminating exposure by shifting to alternative non-chemical forms of pest control, which is the only truly sustainable solution and the only real way to protect public health.

The Government’s recent decision to ban smoking in public places has now created a clear mismatch and inconsistency with its failure to protect people from passive exposure to pesticides. We cannot continue to have the same arguments for the next 50 years. Even though there is likely to be a number of different causes for cancer, all the causes must be identified in an attempt to try and prevent them from occurring. Substantive evidence already exists regarding the role of pesticides in the development of various forms of cancer, which has been clearly recognised in recent European Commission statements.7

Therefore with the continued increase in cancer, environmental factors such as the publics exposure to pesticides, as well as exposure to cocktails of other carcinogenic chemicals, must be put firmly onto the cancer agenda and acknowledged by all those working in the cancer field, including all cancer charities.

The significance of these consequences requires the adoption of a preventative approach, 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.


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 Rural Development, 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:-

8. The short video that accompanied the release of the EU Thematic Strategy on pesticides is available at:-

9. The transcript for the short video that accompanied the release of the EU Thematic Strategy on pesticides is available at:  


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. Georginawas 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. Georgina is also a nominee in the Campaigning category of the Morgan Stanley Great Briton’s 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. 

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.



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