An Introduction to Pesticides and Human Health

Pesticides are among the most widely used chemicals in the world. They are a leading cause of poisonings here in Canada and have been estimated to account for thousands deaths each year globally. Pesticides can also have chronic health effects both as sequelae of acute poisonings and from chronic exposure. Many studies have documented adverse health effects on humans. There are several areas of concern. Many of the commonly used household insecticides are organophosphates. These have been linked in many studies to neurological damage in humans. In fact, chlorpyrifos, a pesticide from this class, was recently banned by the EPA in the US a recent review of the science demonstrated that children have been routinely exposed to unsafe levels. There is also convincing evidence that pesticides play a role in human cancers. For example, epidemiologic studies have linked exposure to insecticides in the home to development of brain cancer and leukemia in children. Studies have also documented reproductive abnormalities such as an increased rate of miscarriage in people with chronic exposure to pesticides. Of particular concern is the effect of pesticides on the health of children: there are several reasons why children are more vulnerable and more widely exposed to pesticides. A report from the National Academy of Sciences in the US (Pesticides in the diets of infants and children, 1993) examined the evidence and came to the conclusion that children have not been adequately protected from pesticides, and recommended changes to regulations and new research and testing to remedy this. The result was the Food Quality Protection Act, passed by US congress in 1996. In Canada, little has been done to update the regulation of pesticides, despite evidence that it is sorely out of date. A study done by the Ontario College of Family Physicians and the Canadian Environmental Law Association reviewed the evidence and made recommendations about standard setting. The study also provides an excellent summary of the scientific and medical evidence about pesticides and their human health effects. CAPE has been active in informing the public about the health effects of pesticides, and has worked with other groups to push for legislation that reduces the use of pesticides. CAPE’s position paper on pesticides is available on this web site.

More Information on Pesticides and Health

The Ontario College of Family Physicians Environmental Health Committee has a brochure for family physicians on the topic. The OCFP also has a set of modules based on clinical cases that can be used for self-learning or for teaching other physicians. These are available online for free, including a module on pesticides. The NPTN has fact sheets on specific pesticides. Extoxnet is a service provided by several US university toxicology departments with lots of information on pesticides. The US EPA has information on pesticides, and has a whole pesticides program. Several environmental organizations have excellent Web sites devoted to news, research and advocacy issues about pesticides. PANNA is the American branch and PAN-UK is the UK branch of the Pesticide Action Network.

CAPE’s position statement on Pesticides
Brief on Bill C-53: The proposed Pest Control Products Act of 2001

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