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The Health Risks of Pesticides

by Georgina Downs(more info)

listed in environmental, originally published in issue 126 - August 2006

The health risks of pesticides, in particular the use of pesticides in agriculture (i.e. crop-spraying), has been in the political and media spotlight since July 2001, when I first questioned the adequacy of the current regulatory system at the Advisory Committee on Pesticides (ACP) annual Open Meeting.

Since then there has been further consideration of the issue by the ACP and the Government regulators, the Pesticides Safety Directorate (PSD); two Government Consultations on pesticide spraying, followed by a year-long investigation by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP).

The ACP, the PSD and other Government agencies have continued to maintain that a robust system is in place to protect public health.

However, the RCEP report published in September 2005 entitled Crop-Spraying and the Health of Residents and Bystanders, concluded that agricultural pesticide spraying is a potential health risk, and that chronic illnesses and diseases reported by people in rural areas, including cancer, Parkinson's and ME, could be associated with pesticide exposure.[1]

The ACP has recently published its response to the RCEP report, where the majority of ACP members remain of the view that pesticide spraying does not pose any significant health risks to those exposed, and have continued to dismiss the problem as merely a social issue rather than a scientific one.[2]

With two of its main advisory bodies fundamentally disagreeing on the public health risks of pesticides, and with the Government response to the reports due out in a few days time, what action should the Government now take?

No Protection for Rural Residents and Communities from Pesticides

In the early 1980s, my parents purchased a piece of land in the countryside on which they designed and built their dream home. About a year after we moved in, a local farmer switched use of the surrounding fields from grazing to arable crops, which were frequently sprayed with pesticides.

From then on I suffered from ill-health, notably flu-type illnesses, sore throats covered in blisters, headaches, dizziness, giddiness, tinnitus and memory and concentration problems. By 1991, my health had deteriorated to such a degree that I was hospitalized with severe muscle wastage, muscle weakness and other chronic symptoms. I knew something had gone seriously wrong neurologically, but at that time, I didn't know the correct terminology to be able to explain it. I underwent a series of tests and scans that ruled out a number of neurological diseases, such as Multiple Sclerosis (MS), Motor Neurone Disease (MND) and Parkinson's disease.

On leaving hospital, I was determined to discover what had happened to my health. It wasn't until I was sitting at home one day looking out the window that the penny finally dropped. I saw a tractor in the adjoining field spraying something and started to wonder what it was. Following some initial inquiries, I was astonished to discover that the tractor was actually spraying a cocktail of poisonous chemicals into the air where we live and breathe, and even more astonished to find out that a farmer is legally permitted to do so under existing government policy.

Following extensive investigations and research into the existing regulations, it became apparent that there was an inherent fundamental failure at all levels to protect people in the countryside from exposure to pesticides. I therefore, started to present a case to the Government in early 2001, to highlight the lack of regulation, including the serious inadequacies of the so-called 'bystander risk assessment'.

The current method of assessing the risks to public health from crop-spraying is based on the predictive model of a 'bystander'. Bystanders are not legally defined either in national regulations or under EU Directive 91/414/EEC, although the latter specifically refers to bystanders. A working definition of bystanders has been developed, which assumes that there will only be occasional, short-term exposure from the spray cloud at the time of the application only. It also assumes exposure will only be to one individual pesticide at any time.

I have continued to argue that this model is clearly inadequate to address the long-term exposure of residents actually living near sprayed fields, where they will be repeatedly and frequently exposed to mixtures of pesticides and other hazardous chemicals, throughout every year, and in many cases, like mine, for decades.

The current assessment does not include in the exposure calculations all the exposure factors relevant for rural residents and communities. These include long-term exposure to pesticides in the air, exposure to vapours after application, reactivation, precipitation, pesticides transported from outdoor applications and redistributed into an indoor air environment, exposure to mixtures, and long-range transportation.

Exposures to Pesticides Inside and Outside the Home

Pesticides, by their very nature, are designed to kill living organisms. They include insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, molluscicides, acaricides, 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, (i.e. weed killers), household (i.e. insect sprays, head lice 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.[3]

People can be exposed to pesticides via air, water, contaminated surfaces and food, amongst other sources, and the routes of exposure include 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.

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.[4][5]

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

Evidence Presented

Following presentations I made in 2002 to the ACP and Ministers, on the inadequacy of the bystander risk assessment in protecting rural residents, in July 2003 DEFRA launched two Consultations on agricultural pesticide spraying. As part of the evidence I submitted I produced a video that featured people from all over the country reporting acute and chronic long-term illnesses and diseases in rural areas.

Some of the acute effects reported to me include:

• Sore throats;
• Burning eyes, nose, skin;
• Blisters;
• Headaches;
• Dizziness;
• Giddiness;
• Nausea;
• Vomiting;
• Stomach pains;
• Flu-type illnesses.

The chronic long-term illnesses reported include:

• Breast cancer;
• Prostate cancer;
• Stomach cancer;
• Bowel cancer;
• Brain cancer;
• Lung cancer;
• Skin cancer;
• Throat cancer;
• Mouth cancer;
• Leukaemia;
• Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma;
• Neurological problems;
• Parkinson's disease;
• Motor Neurone Disease (MND);
• Multiple Sclerosis (MS);
• Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME);
• Asthma;
• Allergies;
• Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS);
• Other chronic medical conditions.

Reports of this nature have gone on for decades, (not only here in the UK, but all over the world, as this is an international problem) and many are related to young children.

I also receive reports from people exposed to pesticides and suffering acute and chronic effects from non-agricultural uses, including from:

• Household sprays (fly and wasp sprays, (insecticides);
• Pet flea treatments (insecticides);
• Garden sprays (herbicides (i.e. weed killers), insecticides for roses and other plants, etc.);
• Timber treatments (fungicides);
• Head lice shampoos (insecticides);
• Sheep dips (insecticides);
• Pesticides sprayed on long-haul flights (insecticides, etc.);
• Pesticides sprayed on golf courses (herbicides, insecticides, etc.);
• Pesticides sprayed on parks and streets and other public areas (herbicides, etc.).

Yet in relation to the UK there does not appear to have been any monitoring for chronic effects, and acute effects are commonly dismissed by Government agencies and advisers as being unrelated to pesticides. Therefore, the Government's official figures do not give a true representation of the real scope of the problem relating to the adverse effects of pesticide exposure.

The result of the Consultations on crop-spraying was announced by the former DEFRA Minister for Rural Affairs, Alun Michael, on June 16, 2004. He stated that on the basis of the scientific advice he had received from the PSD, the ACP and DEFRA's Chief Scientific Adviser, he was confident that the existing system provided full reassurance. However, he requested a study by the RCEP to re-examine the evidence regarding the risks to people from pesticides.[6]

The Royal Commission's Report

The Royal Commission identified grounds for concern in respect of all the areas they addressed, including health, exposure and risk.

The RCEP was highly critical of both the ACP and the PSD and concluded that the level of confidence and assurance that had been given by the ACP to Ministers, as well as the public, regarding the safety of residents and bystanders exposed to agricultural pesticides, 'represented too sanguine a view of the robustness of the scientific evidence.'

The RCEP concluded that it did not agree that the evidence could lead to unequivocal conclusions, previously given by the ACP, that the system provides adequate protection and that there are no scientific concerns, or that it provides full reassurance to the Minister.

The RCEP questioned the independence of the PSD, which receives 60% of its funding from the agro-chemical industry, and suggested that the PSD's current structure seemed to be making health and environmental considerations subordinate to pest control.

The RCEP recommended that the reported ill-health effects need to be taken more seriously; direct access to information and prior notification; concluded that legal redress is virtually impossible and clearly acknowledged that residents and bystanders are two different exposure scenarios. (Even though the RCEP's remit was to assess the health risks in relation to agricultural pesticides, the RCEP concluded that the measures it recommended on health issues and monitoring human health should be extended to cover all non-agricultural uses, such as amenity and from timber treatment). Obviously these findings are all to be welcomed.

However, some of the RCEP's conclusions are disappointingly weak in view of the existing evidence. For example, there is no question that both residents and bystanders have suffered acute effects following exposure to pesticides, and the Government's own monitoring system, the Pesticides Incidents Appraisal Panel (PIAP), has confirmed cases from just one single exposure. Therefore, pesticides being able to cause acute effects was never in doubt, but the Royal Commission did not make this clear enough in the report or in subsequent comments in the media. This left it open to criticisms from some quarters that the RCEP had not found any evidence that pesticides do cause ill-health, which is not correct. On closer examination of its wordings, where the RCEP refers to the plausibility of a link between resident and bystander exposure and ill-health, it actually states that it is in relation to chronic ill-health.

There is no doubt about the rise in chronic illness, particularly in young children. The Office of National Statistics released figures in 2004 that showed that record numbers of children, and young adults, are suffering from long-term illnesses and conditions, and that one in six children under five now suffer from a long-standing illness, compared with four per cent in 1972.[7]

Substantive evidence already exists linking pesticides to various forms of cancer, neurological diseases, asthma and birth defects, among other chronic conditions.

The total cost to the UK with regard to cancer, ME and asthma alone, is in excess of £6 billion per year. It is not known what proportion of the overall costs from damage to health and the environment could be attributable to pesticides. However, even if only partly, then the cost to the economy and society, as a whole, is clearly substantial.

Obviously the personal and human costs to individuals suffering pesticide related ill-health cannot be calculated in financial terms. The significance of these consequences requires the adoption of a preventative approach, especially in relation to the protection of children and other vulnerable groups.

Therefore, despite many positive aspects of the RCEP report, the biggest weakness is that having accepted that there is a potential health risk, and that various illnesses and diseases could be associated with pesticides, the report then completely contradicts its own findings by making recommendations that won't actually prevent exposure for people in the countryside from agricultural spraying.

The RCEP report recommends the introduction of five metre buffer zones alongside residential property and other buildings, such as schools, hospitals and retirement homes, in an attempt to decrease the likelihood of spray drift affecting residents and by-standers.

This recommendation has been widely criticized and has created a spurious argument that could ultimately undermine the overall effectiveness of the RCEP report.

There is an extensive body of scientific evidence, which was submitted to the RCEP, to show that pesticides can travel in the air and spread over vast distances.

For example, a reputable study in California found pesticides located up to three miles away from the treated areas, and calculated health risks for rural residents and communities living within those distances.[8]

Many pesticides commonly used in California have been detected far from the site of application, some as far as 25 to 50 miles. Studies in California consistently find pesticides in the air, rain and even fog, as a result of the repeated and frequent use and release of pesticides on a large scale in agricultural areas.[9]

One study involving nearly 700 Californian women showed that living within a mile of farms where certain pesticides are sprayed, during critical weeks in pregnancy, increased by up to 120% the chance of losing the baby through birth defects.[10]

Another 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 seven-fold increased risk for a type of brain cancer known as astrocytoma.[11]

A study published last year, that confirmed acute illnesses in children and employees from pesticides sprayed on farmland near schools, pointed out that seven US states now require no-spray buffer zones of up to 2.5 miles around schools in an attempt to protect children from exposure.[12]

Therefore, international scientific evidence supports buffer zones of miles not metres. It would be a travesty if the five metre recommendation turns out to be the undoing of the RCEP report.

The ACP's Response to the RCEP Report

On February 6, 2006, the ACP hit back at the RCEP's criticisms of the ACP's approach, in one of the most extraordinary documents to be published by a Government advisory committee charged with advising ministers, on the protection of public health.

The ACP relies on highly selective literature in an attempt to support its view that pesticide spraying is more of a social issue than a scientific one, and that any ill-health reported is likely to be predominantly of a psychological origin following an awareness of exposure.

Apart from being grossly insulting and disrespectful to all those suffering ill-health, whether it be acute or chronic, it is simply not the reality.

As I have informed the ACP many times, the majority of people who contact me did not know anything about being exposed to pesticides until long after they became ill and, therefore, they cannot be imagining or perceiving the ill-effects as being related to pesticides if they have no knowledge of any exposure.

It is interesting to note that the US study published last year, and supported by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), that confirmed acute illnesses in children and employees from pesticides sprayed on farmland near schools did not suggest anywhere that the ill-health effects reported could be due to perception, imagination, and hysteria or of any other psychological origin.[12]

Considering the RCEP made firm statements that people reporting ill-health are genuinely ill, and that this was definitely not psychological, the ACP's continued reliance on this argument only takes the issue backwards and will continue to fuel the adversarial relationship between farmers, regulators and the general public.

It also misses the fundamental point. The principle aim of pesticide regulation is supposed to be the protection of public health, which is obviously based on the risk of harm and not that harm has to have already occurred. Therefore, individuals should not have to prove they are ill. The Government should not be exposing people to any risks. This is the fundamental point that tends to get overlooked with all the arguments regarding proof of causation.

For example, in written evidence to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) inquiry in February 2005, DEFRA and HM Treasury clearly stated that, "If there is scientific evidence that use of a pesticide may harm human health, that is considered an unacceptable level of risk".[13]

This calls into question the lawfulness of the ACP's current approach. The EU Directive 91/414/EEC and the UK equivalent legislation (the Plant Protection Products (PPP) Regulations 2005) state that a pesticide shall not be approved unless it has been satisfied that it will not have any harmful effect on humans or animals.

The former ACP Chairman, Professor Coggon, has stated that approvals have been given to some products knowing that they pose a danger to people's health, and that there may be adverse effects following exposure.14 However, the ACP has confirmed that it accepts these effects, as they are deemed to be relatively minor health effects and along with the PSD has stated that the aim is to protect against any 'serious' illness from the use of pesticides.

This would appear incompatible with the precise and definite language used in both the EU Directive 91/414/EEC and the UK PPP Regulations 2005. The regulatory system is supposed to protect against any adverse health effects occurring from exposure to pesticides, not simply those that the regulators and scientific advisers deem to be 'serious' adverse effects.

Decades of Government Inaction

There has now been over 50 years of documented scientific and medical evidence in relation to the dangers of pesticides, the risks inherent in their use and the acute and chronic long-term ill-health effects that can result following exposure.

Prior to the RCEP report, a number of previous official reports had also warned of the dangers of pesticides and heavily criticized the existing regulations and monitoring system for being wholly inadequate. These included the highly regarded British Medical Association's (BMA) 1990 report 'Pesticides, Chemicals and Health' and the Commons Agriculture Select Committee report in 1987.

Both reports concluded that none of the Government agencies involved with pesticides had made any serious attempt to gather data on the chronic effects of pesticides on human health.

Despite the recommendations that both of these reports made, the situation has not changed, as successive Government's have just continued to deny the evidence.

We cannot continue to have the same arguments for the next 50 years. Many of the conditions that are reported in rural areas, including cancer and leukaemia, are devastating diseases that are on the increase, especially in children, and even though there could be a number of different causes for any chronic illness or disease, all the causes must be identified in an attempt to try and prevent them from occurring.

Pesticides that were approved for use for decades and declared safe have since been banned, as they were subsequently recognized as having damaging effects on human health and the environment.

There have been many parallel examples where the UK Government and its advisers continued to deny the existence of a problem only to have to issue subsequent retractions, along with a ban on the substance, at a later date. One of the most significant of these is in relation to asbestos related diseases.

A report published in 2004 stated that 3,500 people die each year as a result of exposure to asbestos, and that this figure is expected to rise to over 10,000 people a year in the next decade.15 These deaths, and those yet to come, could have been avoided if the early warning signs, going back many decades, had been adhered to and the immediate and appropriate action taken.

Another example is the Government's approach to smoking, as despite the fact that the medical evidence on passive smoking had been around for decades, it is only now that the Government has finally made the proactive decision to introduce preventative measures to protect people from second-hand exposure to cigarette smoke.

However, the tobacco industry, like the pesticides industry, continues to maintain that the evidence is only circumstantial, that there is no definite proven link, and simply calls for further research. David Michaels, a professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health, has called this approach 'the art of manufacturing uncertainty'. In an article last year for the Los Angeles Times he stated: "Every polluter and manufacturer of toxic chemicals understands that by fostering a debate on uncertainties in the underlying science and by harping on the need for more research – always more research – it can avoid debating the actual policy or regulation in question".[16]

A recent US study that highlighted the neuro-developmental effects of pesticides concluded that a new regulatory approach for pesticides is needed, and that the uncertainty that accompanies scientific research cannot be allowed to serve as an impediment to protective actions.[17]


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.

The use of pesticides and other hazardous chemicals has resulted in devastating consequences for public health, animals, wildlife, air, water, soil, food and the wider environment. This has massive economic and financial implications for all parties (with the exception of the pesticide industry) that are impossible to quantify.

The UK Government and the EU must take immediate action, which is very long overdue, especially in relation to the protection of children and other vulnerable groups.

The only way to protect public health and prevent any illnesses and diseases that could be associated with pesticides, for now and for future generations, is to avoid exposure altogether through the widespread adoption of truly sustainable non-chemical and natural methods, as an alternative to chemical pest control.

This would obviously be more in line with the Government's commitment to sustainable development, sustainable food and farming and sustainable communities, as the reliance on complex chemicals designed to kill plants, insects or other forms of life, whether for agricultural or non-agricultural purposes, cannot be classified as sustainable.

What Can You Do?

• Buy organic and support organic farming and food (;
• Avoid using chemical sprays and seek out non-chemical and natural alternatives.

Write to Government Ministers, MPs and peers and point out:

(i) The inconsistency between the new proposals to ban smoking in public places and the lack of action over pesticides;
(ii) The need for immediate preventative measures to be introduced, especially in relation to the protection of children and other vulnerable groups;
(iii) The widespread adoption of sustainable non-chemical and natural methods, as an alternative to chemical pest control would be more in line with the Government's commitment to sustainable development, sustainable food and farming and sustainable communities.

Ministers can be contacted via the relevant department. The DEFRA Minister responsible for pesticides, Lord Rooker, can be contacted at: DEFRA, Nobel House, 17 Smith Square, London, SW1P 3JR. Email:

MPs can be contacted at: The House of Commons, Westminster, London SW1A 0AA. Peers can be contacted at: The House of Lords, Westminster, London SW1A 0PW


1. RCEP (Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution). Crop Spraying and the Health of Residents and Bystanders. Available at September 22, 2005.
2. ACP (Advisory Committee on Pesticides). A Commentary on the Report Published by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution in September 2005. Available at _vfinal.pdf. Published February 2006.
3. 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.
4. Hayes TB 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. April 16, 2002.
5. Hayes TB et al. Atrazine-Induced Hermaphroditism at 0.1 ppb in American Leopard Frogs (Rana pipiens): Laboratory and Field Evidence. Environmental Health Perspectives. Volume 11. Number 4. April 2003.
6. Michael A MP. Written Ministerial Statement. Risks to People from Pesticide Spraying. Available at June 16, 2004.
7. Office of National Statistics. Figures published as part of its annual Living in Britain survey. March 18, 2004.
8. Lee S, McLaughlin R, Harnly M, Gunier R and Kreutzer R. Community Exposures to Airborne Agricultural Pesticides in California: Ranking of Inhalation Risks. California Department of Health Services. Environmental Health Investigations Branch. California. USA. Environmental Health Perspectives. Volume 110. Number 12. December 2002.
9. CALPIRG (California Public Interest Research Group) Charitable Trust. Poisoning the Air: Airborne Pesticides in California. September 1998.
10. Bell EM, Hertz-Picciotto I and Beaumont JJ. A Case Control Study of Pesticides and Foetal Death Due to Congenital Anomalies. Epidemiology. 12(2). 2001.
11. 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.
12. Alarcon W et al. Acute Illness Associated with Pesticide Exposure at Schools. Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). Vol 294. No 4. 455-465. July 27, 2005.
13. DEFRA and HM Treasury. Joint Memorandum submitted as evidence to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) inquiry into the Progress on the use of pesticides: the Voluntary Initiative. October 2004.
14. Coggon D ACP Chairman. ACP response to the Consultation document on the National Pesticide Strategy. June 24, 2005.
15. Asbestos Working Party. UK Asbestos – The Definitive Guide. The Actuarial Profession. November 2004.
16. Michael D. The Art of Manufacturing Uncertainty. Los Angeles Times. June 24, 2005.
17. Colburn T. A Case for Revisiting the Safety of Pesticides: A Closer Look at Neuro-development. Environmental Health Perspectives. Volume 114. Number 1. January 2006.

Further Information

For more information on Georgina's campaign visit the UK Pesticides Campaign website at


Some material in this article is reprinted with permission of Research Information Ltd from 'Outlooks on Pest Management', Volume 17(2), 69-74 (2006) – see


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About Georgina Downs

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. 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 produced two 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. She has called for an immediate ban on crop-spraying and the use of pesticides near 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. Georgina has recently won the prestigious Andrew Lees Memorial Award at the British Environment Media Awards, and was 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. Georgina can be contacted via Tel: 01243 773846;

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