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Pesticides – The risk to human health PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Roman Bystrianyk   
Monday, 05 November 2007 00:00

We’ve all seen those signs on lawns warning about a pesticide application. In many communities in the United States people dutifully apply pesticides to their lawns to present a certain look. In the land that touts individuality, paradoxically how your home and surrounding lawn appear must conform within a certain narrow standard of socially acceptable parameters. 

A uniform golf-course-carpet-like green lawn has become in many cases an ingrained view that is ever reinforced by a myriad of commercials offering products to achieve this utopian “Garden of Eden.” According to the EPA, people used over 100 million pounds of active pesticide ingredients in 2001 to in part achieve this result. However, what are the consequences of achieving that certain look – of “keeping up with the Joneses”? 

The Canadian Cancer Society states that it is very concerned about the “potentially carcinogenic (cancer-causing) substances for the purpose of enhancing the appearance of, for example, private gardens and lawns as well as parks, recreational facilities and golf courses.” They base this concern on the conclusions of the International Agency for Research on Cancer, or IARC, that state the some substances used in pesticides are classified as “known, probable or possible carcinogens.” The Canadian Cancer Society continues, “Since ornamental use of pesticides has no countervailing health benefit and has the potential to cause harm, we call for a ban on the use of pesticides on lawns and gardens.” 

However, the carcinogenicity of pesticides isn’t the only cause for concern. Although it is well accepted that acute pesticide poisoning causes an array of health problems such as seizures, rashes, and gastrointestinal illness, the chronic effects are less well known. A study in Canadian Family Physician, examined all the scientific studies from 1992 to 2003 to examine the other consequences of pesticide use. In all, the study identified 124 quality studies to be included in their analysis.

In their analysis the authors found 3 non-cancer effects of pesticides – neurologic, reproductive, and genotoxic (causing DNA damage). 


The long-term effects of pesticides on the nervous system include cognitive and psychomotor dysfunction, as well as neurodegenerative and neurodevelopmental effects. Most studies found “an increased prevalence of symptoms or mood changes, as well as alterations in neurobehavioral performance and cognitive function. Studies of the mental and emotional effects of pesticides found associations for current minor psychiatric morbidity, depression, suicide among Canadian farmers, and death from mental disorders, particularly neurotic disorders in women.” The authors found that, “Together, these studies provide important evidence of the subclinical effects of pesticides on the nervous system.” 

Reproductive System 

Studies consistently showed increased risk with pesticide exposure. Specific defects included limb reductions, urinary or genital anomalies, central nervous system defects, facial clefts, heart defects, and eye anomalies. The rate of birth defects increased by parental exposure to pesticides. Fetal death includes spontaneous abortion, fetal death, stillbirth, and neonatal death. “Results were consistent across several study designs; 9 of 11 studies found positive associations with pesticide exposure.” 


Genotoxicity is the ability of a pesticide to cause genetic damage – to actually damage the DNA. “Positive associations between pesticide exposure and elevated percent chromosome aberrations were found in 11 of 14 studies.” The authors continue, “Pesticide exposure doubled the frequency of chromosome aberrations.” These abnormalities could manifest as spontaneous abortion, birth defects, sperm abnormalities, or cancer risk. 


The authors found that, “the most striking feature of the results of this systematic review is the consistency of evidence showing that pesticide exposure increases the risk of 3 non-cancer health effects: neurologic, reproductive, and genotoxic effects. The results are consistent with those of other reviews.” 

The Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment as well as national pediatric and public health groups in Canada and the United States have expressed concern about the health effects from cosmetic pesticide use and have recommended physicians participate in efforts to reduce their use. 

The authors conclude, “Then in our role as public and community health advocates, we need to educate the public about the health effects of pesticide use. We need to reinforce community efforts to reduce cosmetic use of pesticides that can disproportionately affect children, pregnant women, and elderly people.”

Source: Canadian Family Physician, October 2007


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Last Updated on Wednesday, 09 September 2009 01:39