Pesticides and Our Health
Occasionally you remember exactly what made you look at an issue in a different light. For me one such moment was listening to an interview with Klaas Martens, a US grain farmer in the state of New York. The last time he sprayed his fields with pesticides was in spring of 1994, Martens said. It was late afternoon when he tried to fold the sprayer and realised he could not move his right arm. ‘It was never proven that that’s what caused it, but common sense tells me that I was poisoned that day’.
I remembered Klaas Martens’ story when I started reading a Greenpeace study, published in May. The executive summary concludes that ‘proving definitively that exposure to a particular pesticide causes a disease or other condition in humans presents a considerable challenge. There are no groups in human population that are completely unexposed to pesticides.’ Greenpeace has not conducted its own research, but put together the findings of numerous independent studies that have been done internationally over the last few years. Here’s some of what we do know about pesticides:
We are all exposed to pesticides, but some of us are more exposed than others: farmers and greenhouse workers are badly affected, but so are people in rural communities – pesticides can and do drift with the wind. The other particularly vulnerable group are unborn and young children. Toddlers and babies crawl on lawns, touch plants and put lots of things in their mouths. Even if the park they’re in has not been recently sprayed: pesticides levels fall very slowly over time. And women who are exposed to pesticides during pregnancy pass some of the chemicals directly on to the foetus.
We are all exposed to different kinds of pesticides, glyphosate and neonicotinoids are just two that have been in the news recently more often than others. If it’s unclear what effect one particular pesticide has on human health, it’s even more difficult to say what a cocktail of different poisons – and that’s what pesticides are – does to us. We are exposed to them through the air, through our water, pesticides accumulate in the soil and pesticides are in a lot of food we eat: residues can be found in fruits and vegetables, in fish, in meat, in milk and eggs.
So what are the effects on our health? Because we’re all exposed to pesticides it is difficult to prove a cause-effect relationship, like: exposure to X amount of pesticide Y causes cancer Z. What the Greenpeace study does show are strong links between pesticide exposure and ill health. Children whose mothers were exposed to pesticides during pregnancy are more likely to have a reduced birth weight, lower intelligence, altered behaviour and they have an increased risk to develop leucemia and other cancers. That’s a shortened version of a list of health risks. For adults the ‘significant association with particular cancers in farm workers/pesticide applicators’ is listed in neat columns: name of pesticide, chemical classification, type of cancer.... Then there is a statistically increased risk to develop ‘neurodegenerative diseases’ like Parkinson’s. And many pesticides are endocrine disruptors, they are likely to have an effect on everything from the thyroid gland to fertility.
But there also are some positive findings: Greenpeace cites a 2006 US study in which children (aged 3-11) were given a conventional diet for 5 days, followed by 5 days of organic food. The levels of pesticides measured in the children’s urine fell after 5 days of organic food and increased again when they returned to a conventional diet.
The Greenpeace study draws a somewhat longwinded conclusion: ‘The only sure approach to reducing our exposure to toxic pesticides is through a move towards a more long-term and sustainable approach to producing food. (...) Fundamentally changing our approach to farming involves a paradigm shift from industrial agriculture (...)’.
Go organic – is the short version.
Which brings me back to Klaas Martens, the grain farmer who suddenly couldn’t move his arm after spraying his fields with pesticides. He recovered after several weeks and has been farming organically ever since. Together with his wife he also runs a certified organic feed and seed business. As dismal as the findings of the Greenpeace study are – it also shows that switching to organic is a significant turn for the better.