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Pesticide impacts on human health
welcome > About Pesticides > Impacts on human health

> Workers' exposure

> Residents and bystander exposure

> In-utero exposure

> Children's exposure




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with specific hazards as classified by national or international official bodies, as well as the numbers now withdrawn.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).

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 fully implemented.

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 (8).

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 diet.

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 legislation
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 to pesticides
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 at http://www.pan-europe.info/conferences/index.htm

(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 pollution http://www.artac.info/static.php?op=AppelAnglais.txt&npds=1

- 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/



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