A ‘dramatic’ increase in a range of occupational and childhood cancers has been linked to pesticide exposures.
Public health researchers, writing in a new report for the Chemicals, Health and Environment Monitoring Trust (CHEM Trust), call on the UK government to step up action to ban the most harmful pesticides and to bring in a duty for the public to be informed before spraying takes place.
They add that safer alternatives are available and are preferable to attempting to avoid occupational or environmental exposures to inherently dangerous substances.
‘A review of the role pesticides play in some cancers: Children, farmers and pesticide users at risk?’, published on 2 July 2010, links exposure prior to conception or during pregnancy to higher rates of childhood cancer and warns that farm workers could also be developing cancers caused by pesticide exposures at work.
The report says several studies “strongly suggest” that pesticide exposures are associated with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL), leukaemia, prostate cancer and other hormone-related cancers. It adds that environmental factors “must be partly to blame” for massive increases in the incidence of certain cancers since 1975 – because genes in a population do not change that quickly.
Since the mid-1970s, cases of NHL have more than doubled in Britain, prostate cancer has tripled, testicular cancer has doubled and breast cancer in women has increased by two-thirds, and in men has quadrupled, the report notes. In the 35 years up to 1998, childhood cancer in Britain increased by 35 per cent, it adds. Although the increasing numbers may be in part a result of better diagnosis, the report authors believe environmental factors, including pesticides, are a contributory factor.
Stirling University’s Professor Andrew Watterson, a co-author of the report, commented: “Occupational and environmental cancers have been a neglected public health issue in the UK for decades. The report highlights the substantial nature of the threat from pesticide exposure.
“In the UK, oversight of pesticides has continued to err on the side of products rather than people and of course relies on data generated initially by the pesticide manufacturers. The regulatory response has usually been ‘if in doubt, do continue using pesticides’ when the scientific literature is littered with examples of products that have been cleared in the past emerging as known or suspect human carcinogens.
“There is a long-overdue and urgent need to mount a cancer prevention campaign on pesticides based on effective precautionary principles.”
Gwynne Lyons, director of CHEM Trust and co-author of the report, commented: “Research suggests that pregnant women, in particular, should avoid direct exposure to pesticides, if possible.”
She accused the UK of dragging its feet on risks posed by chemicals. “It is high time that the UK was more supportive of EU proposals to take a tougher approach to reducing exposure to potentially harmful chemicals,” she said. “If the UK is to shed its image of being the laggard in the EU, then the UK government must robustly implement the new EU pesticides legislation in order to try and reduce the burden of cancer in children, farmers and others exposed to pesticides.”
Professor Watterson said it was not realistic to expect the public to avoid farms and other areas where pesticides may be used. Instead, he said, the government needed to strengthen regulation to remove the risks in the first place. “There are substitutes available,” he said. “There are less hazardous alternatives.”