Many negative health effects of pesticides are
only known partly because of scarce research and poor and inconsistent
record of health effects. According to the Commission Communication
on the Sixth Environmental Action Programme, there is sufficient
evidence to suggest that the scale and trends of problems caused
by pesticides are serious and growing. Particular concerns include
the contamination of groundwater and foodstuff, and the continuing
accumulation of certain pesticides in plants and animals. The effects
of small quantities of pollutants that accumulate in human bodies
are also poorly understood. There is consequently a need to protect
vulnerable groups such as children and the elderly.
There is serious concern about the high prevalence of reproductive
disorders in European boys and young men and about the rise in cancers
of reproductive organs, such as breast and testis. Research indicates
a strong connection with environmental pollution and the continuous
exposure to low levels of a large number of endocrine disrupters
which can act in concert. Many of these chemicals, drugs or natural
products are found in human tissues and in breast milk. The example
of vinclozolin (1) capable of inheritable changes shows the potential
of negative effects.
Compared with many other parts of the world, EU certainly have
fewer dangerous pesticides in common use these days. However, we
still have hundreds of dangerous pesticides widely used and released
or still present in the European environment. Pesticide toxicity
is not properly assessed in EU. Although pesticides are one of the
most rigorously tested sets of chemicals, there are numerous important
gaps in the kinds of tests required, especially for harmful properties
which may not produce immediate, visible effects, or can affect
vulnerable groups. PAN Europe has identified several deficiencies
in the current requirements for pesticide toxicity evaluation, summarised
in the Briefing "Why current
european legislation fails to protect our health?" (2).
The table below lists the numbers of currently authorised pesticide
active ingredients with specific hazards as classified by national
or international official bodies, as well as the numbers now withdrawn.
A full list, along with the relevant classifications and sources,
can be found in the dossier
in French produced by PAN Europe partners Inter-Environnement Wallonie
(IEW) in Belgium and Moment for the Rights and Respect for Future
Generations (MDRGF) in France (3).
Concerning poisoning of workers or workers’ health, few independent
studies on workers’ health have been carried out at the European
level. In the late 1990s, the European Federation of Agricultural
(EFA) workers carried out a survey of pesticide poisoning among
its two million members (4). A total of 1,230 questionnaires from
individuals and organisations were analysed. The results showed
that at least one person in five considers that they have been made
ill or poisoned, or adversely affected by pesticides.
The survey revealed that workers are poisoned at different times
during their work. Problems of usage represent 73% of incidents,
in particular: handling of concentrates (6%); application (39%);
preparation and mixing (28%). Nevertheless the proportion of incidents
arising after pesticide treatment is noticeable: washing after use
(12%), operations involving contaminated equipment (7%) or containers
after use (2%), working in areas previously treated (6%) making
a total of 27%.
Among those poisoned, 53% informed their employer, but only 27%
informed the competent authority. In 46% of cases, poisoning involved
medical intervention, either a consultation or visit to a hospital.
Symptoms most often reported by pesticide users included: headaches
(67%); skin irritation (39%); stomach pains (33%); vomiting (30%);
eye irritation (25%); diarrhoea (15%). Some reported more than one
symptom. Other symptoms occurred in 10% of cases: notably symptoms
linked with the nervous systems such as fatigue, difficulty in concentration,
difficulty in muscle control and co-ordination of movement; and
the respiratory system.
Besides poisoning, workers frequently exposed to pesticides are
known to develop several diseases, including cancer, chronic fatigue
and respiratory diseases. In 2004, PAN
Europe Annual Conference focused on workers exposure to biocides
both in indoor and outdoor use. Some workers in Catalunya who were
daily exposed to disinfectants or insecticides have developed cancer,
permanent impairment, besides suffering from acute poisoning. This
highlighted that certain highly hazardous active ingredients (mainly
pyrethroids and organophosphates) must be substituted by safer alternatives,
and that controls are necessary whether a product has an approval
to be used indoors. Better training on safety for workers is needed,
and the situation in the private sphere must be monitored also.
For the US, public health impacts of pesticide use are estimated
to cost $787 million each year (5). These impacts arise from human
pesticide poisonings and illnesses, and include costs of hospitalization,
outpatient treatment, lost work time, treatment of pesticide induced
cancers, and fatalities. Pimentel and colleagues stress that chronic
(vs acute) health effects of pesticides are particularly difficult
to assess. Deaths of domestic animals (particularly cats and dogs)
and contamination of meat, milk and eggs cost at least an additional
$30 million annually.
The International Labour Office (ILO) recognises that workers in
developing countries are at especially high risk due to inadequate
education, training and safety systems. But even in developed countries
such as EU countries agriculture ranks consistently among the most
hazardous industries. In Italy, for example, although agriculture
production employs 9.7% of the workforce it is responsible for 28.7%
of accidents. Exposure to pesticides and agrochemicals constitutes
one of the major risks faced by farm workers, accounting in some
countries for as much as 14% of all occupational injuries in the
agricultural sector and 10% of all fatal injuries (6).
RESIDENTS AND BYSTANDER EXPOSURE
An important new report by the UK
Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution report ‘Crop spraying
and the health of residents and bystanders’ finds that,
‘Based on the conclusions from our visits and our understanding
of the biological mechanisms with which pesticides interact, it
is plausible that there could be a link between residents and bystander
pesticide exposure and chronic ill health. We find that we are not
able to rule out this possibility. We recommend that a more precautionary
approach is taken with passive exposure to pesticides’ (7).
The report finds that the assessment of residents and bystander
exposure made in the UK is far from satisfactory. It has not been
rigorously evaluated under field conditions and has been assessed
in relation to non-peer-reviewed experiments conducted on a limited
scale and reassessed on the basis of data collected for different
purposes in Germany and USA. As such, residents and bystander exposure
has been chronically under evaluated. The Royal Commission also
commissioned an independent economic analysis that showed no significant
costs for the industry if the recommendations of the report were
IN UTERO EXPOSURE
Mothers’ exposure during pregnancy can also cause birth defects.
Mothers can be exposed directly through food, occupational use,
gardening and household use, the house being exposed near sprayed
fields, and indirectly through partner’s professional or amateur
use. An extensive literature review divided scientific studies according
to their findings in terms of implications for the progeny and was
presented at the AREHNA workshop
"Environmental impacts on congenital diseases". Exposure
to pesticides is linked to central nervous system defects, cardiovascular
defects, oral cleft, eye anomalies, urogenital defects, limb defects,
intrauterine growth retardation and neurodevelopment impairments
The Commissioner for the Environment, Margot Wallström, asked
for a special study from the World Health Organization (WHO) and
European Environment Agency (EEA) on environmental impacts on children’s
health (9). The section on pesticides notes that fetuses, infants
and children can be more vulnerable to pesticides, both quantitatively
and occasionally qualitatively, than adults, because their bodies
are still developing. Fetuses, infants and children are highly vulnerable
to critical windows of exposure, and their systems for protecting
the body from toxic chemicals are still immature. They are also
more exposed because of childhood patterns of behavior and specific
The WHO/EEA study notes that the core tests to determine the safety
of pesticides in use within and outside the EU, including for new
EU pesticide authorizations, do not fully assess the hazards posed
by specific pesticides to infants and children. Moreover, current
risk assessment methodology does not specifically consider these
effects on infants and children nor the wide range of exposure patterns
that exist within this population. Consequently, variations in dietary
and environmental exposure to pesticides (aggregated exposure) and
health risks related to age and particular sensitivity are not addressed
when establishing ADIs (average daily intake), ArfDs (average reference
doses) and MRLs (maximum residue limits). Possible health effects
include immunological effects, endocrine disrupting effects, neurotoxicological
disorders and cancer. Susceptibility of this vulnerable group to
delayed functional toxicity - as a result of exposure to apparently
sub-toxic doses of pesticides during a critical window – may
not become manifest until adulthood.
The authors of the report urge that environmental pollution and
residues in food and drinking water be minimized to protect this
age group of the population and those IPM methods are implemented.
(1) Anway MD, Cupps AS, Uzumcu M, Skinner MK (2005), Epigenetic
Transgenerational Actions of Endocrine Disruptors and Male Fertility,
Science, 308: 1466-1469.
(2) PAN Europe Briefing No 2 "Why current European pesticide
fails to protect our health" http://www.pan-europe.info/publications/Health.htm
(3) IEW, MDRGF (2004) "Dangerosité des matières
actives et des spécialités commerciales phytosanitaires
autorisées dans l’Union Européenne".
(4) Pesticide News (1997), Health and safety concerns from European
survey of operators, No. 36, June 1997
(5) Pimentel, D., H. Acquay, M. Biltonen, P. Rice, M. Silva, J.
Nelson, V. Lipner, S. Giordano, A. Horowitz, and M. D'Amore. 1992.
Environmental and economic costs of pesticide use. BioScience, Volume
42 (No. 10, November), pages 750- 760.
(6) ILO (1997), ILO warns on farm safety. Agriculture mortality
rates remain high. Pesticides pose major health risks to global
workforce, Press release ILO/97/23.
(7) RCEP (2005), Crop Spraying and the Health of Residents and
Bystanders, Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, London.
Available at http://www.rcep.org.uk/cropspraying.htm
(8) Wattiez, Catherine (2005), Links between in utero exposure
and effects on the human progeny. Does European pesticide legislation
protect health? Presentation at the AREHNA workshop “Environmental
impact on congenital diseases”, 9-11 June 2005, Greece. Available
(9) WHO/EEA (2002), Children Health and Environment: A Review of
Evidence, World Health Organisation Regional and European Environmental
Agency. Available at http://reports.eea.eu.int/environmental_issue_report_2002_29/en/eip_29.pdf
- EPHA Environment Network http://www.env-health.org/
- International Labour Organisation (ILO) http://www.ilo.org/
- PAN UK Action on Pesticide Exposure (PEX) project http://www.pan-uk.org/pex/pexindex.htm
- Paris Appeal: International Declaration on diseases due to chemical
- Prague Declaration on Endocrine Disruptors http://www.edenresearch.info/declaration.html
- Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution http://www.rcep.org.uk
- World Health Organisation http://www.who.int/en/