What’s a pesticide?

Pesticides are toxic chemicals designed, as the name suggests, to kill “pests”: any living thing which can damage crops. Pesticides include several categories:insecticides are designed to kill insects; herbicides kill weeds, and so on.

What’s wrong with pesticides?

<Pesticides are designed to be toxic. Many pesticides are severely harmful to human health and the environment, and responsible for the poisoning of numerous people, livestock and wildlife.Some have been linked to cancer. Some are based on WW2 nerve gases and damage the nervous system, whether insect or human. Many also disrupt the hormonal balance in our body: they threaten our potential to reproduce, and to have healthy offspring. Finally, some pesticides remain in the environment for decades: they accumulate in the fatty tissues of animals and contaminate the environment far from where they were used.

Are pesticides linked to poverty?
Pesticides have become increasingly expensive. The cost of chemicals can be as much as 60% of farmers’ production costs, which leads to severe indebtedness. Pesticides often lose their effectiveness after a few years because pests are able to adapt and become resistant to them. Farmers are then trapped in an endless cycle where they must buy an ever-increasing quantity of pesticides or switch to newer, more expensive chemicals. Each year thousands of farmers commit suicide because they cannot pay their debts. Ironically, they often do so by ingesting the pesticides which have caused their despair.
What is the Africa Stockpiles Programme?
It is a multi-stakeholder partnership bringing together skills and expertise of multi-national organizations, international non-governmental organizations, governments and industry. The scope of the ASP is 10-15 years, implemented over a series of projects, at an estimated total clean-up and prevention cost of US$250 million
Why should I use organic cotton?
PAN UK receives many requests for help from cotton farmers in many developing countries who wish to convert to organic agriculture, because they have witnessed the benefits organic cotton can bring. However conversion to organic agriculture is a difficult process and farmers need to be sure that they will be able to sell their organic cotton fibres. By choosing to use organic cotton, you help to develop the demand, and hence to allow many more farmers to transform their lives.
Is cotton really natural?
Cotton has been cultivated and used to manufacture textiles for thousands of years. We find cotton fibres inside the fruit of the cotton plant. Cotton is indeed a natural fibre, like wool, hemp, flax, silk, or alpaca. However for the past 50 years or so, cotton has been grown using ever increasing amounts of chemicals such as synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Thus while cotton remains a natural fibre, modern cotton production is often far from “natural”, unless it is organic.
Is there such a thing as an organic fabric?
An organic textile is a textile product (fabric, garment), made with organic cotton (or wool, etc) which has been processed and manufactured according to a set of “organic textile standards”. Some chemicals remain essential but the most environmentally-friendly chemicals and processes are used. Unlike organic cotton fibre, there are no laws governing organic textiles; the standards are therefore set by private agencies (such as the Global Organic Textile Standards, or GOTS, used by the Soil Association).
What does organic cotton mean?
altOrganic cotton means a cotton fibre which has been grown according to the principles and rules of organic agriculture. These rules are very strict and are defined by a law from the European Union. Organic agriculture uses no synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, and no Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO). Organic fertilizers (such as compost) and plant-based pest management products (such as neem or garlic extract) are used. However, organic agriculture is not merely about replacing synthetic inputs with natural ones. The major principle is to restore a natural balance within the farm, with healthy soils, rich in organic matter. In such an environment, the pests are not systematically destroyed by poisons but are kept under control by their predators, just as they are in nature.
The true cost of non-organic cotton
On August, 24, 1999, in the village of Maregourou in Benin, three boys between the ages of 12 and 14 went to weed their father's cotton field. The cotton crop was cultivated together with maize. The day before, the father had sprayed the field with an insecticide and the boys did not know. After they had finished their work, they took a few maize cobs to eat and 15 minutes later started vomiting. They were taken to the nearest hospital where the youngest boy, aged 12, died. His two older brothers survived.
Some people say poor farmers would be better off growing food than cotton. Are they right?
These people are mistaken. First of all cotton is often the only “cash crop” poor subsistence farmers can grow to provide them with the necessary income to buy tools, clothes, school books, medicines, etc. Secondly, the concept of crop rotation is a major principle of organic agriculture. Organic cotton farmers typically grow twice as much food as cotton. This allows them to ensure “food security” (enough food) for their whole community. When farmers grow cotton organically they also grow, as a result, very healthy and nutritive organic food which is not contaminated by pesticides. We call this “food safety”, and it is all thanks to organic cotton.

Click here to find out more and our Fibre, Food & Beauty project

Is it true that many cotton farmers die from pesticide poisoning?

alt This is definitely true. The World Health Organisation estimates that 20,000 to 40,000 people die from accidental pesticide poisoning each year, most of them in developing countries. It is safe to assume that many of them are cotton farmers. The full and exact extent of this phenomenon is unknown as it is has never been monitored globally. However, a Pesticide Action Network survey documented 65 deaths in only two districts of Benin during the 2001 cotton growing season; 10 were children under 10.

Find out more
Living with Poison
PN 85 article Pesticide poisoning in West Africa

What are the best and worst foods for pesticide residues?
See our pesticide residues section

Will washing or peeling fruit and vegetables remove pesticide residues?
Washing and peeling may remove some pesticide residues. For example, conventionally grown citrus fruits are commonly treated with fungicides after harvest to prevent rotting, so the peel is likely to be contaminated, but there is much less contamination within the flesh. However, in other cases, pesticides may be present throughout the whole fruit or vegetable. Processing, including cooking, can also reduce residues, but may not eliminate them completely; nevertheless, it is important to include plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables in the diet.

PAN UK compared the pesticide policies of the major UK supermarkets to see which retailers are doing the most to address residues and other pesticide problems in their supply chains
see the results here.


Are there health risks for people working with pesticides, and their families?

People who use pesticides at work, e.g. farmers, pest controllers, pesticide manufacturer staff, people working in horticulture and floriculture and those applying pesticides in urban, transport and amenity sectors are exposed to pesticides on a regular basis, sometimes at high concentrations. This may place them at higher risk of developing some health problems. There is also the risk of high exposure from an accident.

For example, some cancers are more common among farmers (although farmers generally have a lower rate of cancer than the general population). These include non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which many studies have linked to pesticides. Higher incidence of some cancers has also been observed in pesticide manufacturing plants. It is now quite well established that exposure to pesticides is a risk factor for Parkinson’s disease, although it is still not clear which pesticides are responsible. Research has also suggested associations with other health problems such as thyroid disorder and reduced fertility.

Sheep dipping with organophosphate pesticides to prevent sheep scab used to be compulsory in the UK. Some sheep farmers reported flu-like symptoms after dipping, sometimes referred to as ‘dippers flu’, and went on to develop chronic health problems. For this we need to know what does viagra do. Recent research has shown that sheep farmers exposed to organophosphates may suffer from a range of impairments to cognitive functions, for example, response speed, verbal and visual memory, and fine motor control.

Families of pesticide operators may also have higher levels of exposure, because of residues brought home on clothing, or because they live on site in the case of farming families. This is of particular concern for young children, and unborn children, who are much more sensitive to the effects of pesticides (due to their size and the fact that their organs are still developing). For instance a recent review found that leukaemia was more common in children whose mothers had used pesticides during pregnancy.

It is well known that farmers in the developing world suffer a high incidence of acute poisoning, often resulting in severe illness, and causing many thousands of deaths every year. Poor conditions of use in developing countries make it likely that chronic toxicity is also a serious issue; however, most research into pesticide exposure takes place in more developed countries.

Read more about Pesticides and Health and our Pesticide Exposure project

Recent Pesticides News articles on pesticides and occupational health:

Do pesticides make people suicidal?

Community health monitoring in Tanzania

Pesticide poisoning in West Africa

OP sheep dips

What should I do if I have been exposed to pesticides?
Please note that PAN UK has no medical expertise, and therefore cannot give health advice.

If you have been exposed to pesticides, you may need to:
  • leave the area or building immediately
  • remove any contaminated clothing
  • if skin has been contaminated, wash thoroughly with clean water. If the eyes have been affected,  again, irrigate thoroughly with clean water
  • avoid further exposure

If you feel unwell, or have any symptoms following pesticide exposure, you may need to seek medical advice. Depending on the severity you could:
  • ring NHS direct for health advice: tel. 08454647
  • contact your GP and ask for an urgent appointment
  • go to your local accident and emergency services

Toxicology is quite a rare specialism within medicine, however medical professionals can contact the
National Poisons Information Service (NPIS) to find out exactly how to treat you. Please note that NPIS does NOT take enquiries from the general public.

If possible find out the name of the product and active ingredients. This is important so that your doctor knows how to treat you and what tests need to be carried out.

It is important to
report the incident, and you may also be interested in PAN UK’s PEX project.

Why should I report a pesticide exposure incident?
If the pesticide was being used illegally, the Health and Safety Executive can take action to stop it from happening again. If it can be shown that exposure has damaged your health you may be able to get compensation, although in PAN UK's experience this is extremely rare.

Nevertheless, PAN UK encourages the reporting of all pesticide exposure incidents so that the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) gains an accurate picture of the extent of pesticide exposure, and of health problems following exposure.

How to report an incident

How can I find out what has been sprayed?

Farmers must keep records of all pesticide applications. There is currently no obligation to disclose farm spray records to the public, but it is considered good practice to do so.

The National Farmers Union has published a
Spray Operator Guide which recommends being open with the public.

Local councils will usually provide information on what has been sprayed, though it can take some time to find out, as spraying is often contracted out. If the council is unwilling to provide this information you could try making a request under the
Freedom of Information Act.

I'm thinking of moving to a house bordered by frequently sprayed land. What are the health risks?

People who live near regularly sprayed areas are likely to have higher levels of exposure than those who don’t. Spraying can be frequent, many different sprays may be used, and there is nothing in current law to stop farmers spraying right up to your property. There is also no obligation to inform residents before spraying, or to disclose what is being used. However, you may be able to reach an informal agreement (see Pesticide Spraying – Your Rights), and the current situation may change under new legislation.

What help is available for people who are chronically ill as a result of pesticide exposure?
Chronic pesticide poisoning is not well understood. Many GPs will be unaware of pesticide poisoning as a possible cause of symptoms. However, they can investigate other possible causes of symptoms and may refer you to specialists, e.g. a neurologist or toxicology unit. If no cause can be identified, then any treatment offered is likely to be along the lines of ameliorating and managing symptoms.
How can I reduce spraying in my area?

We would suggest that you start by directly approaching those responsible for the spraying. This may be individual farmers or growers, landowners, or the local council if it is amenity spraying (parks, pavements etc). Talk to them about your concerns. You could ask for a ‘no-spray zone’ to be left around your property, or to be given some notice when they are going to spray – that way you can at least keep your windows shut and keep children and pets inside, or arrange to be away from the area.

At present, there is no legal requirement for pesticide users to adopt these measures, but they are encouraged to do so as part of good practice when using pesticides. The National Farmers Union has produced two leaflets to provide guidance for farmers and spray operators on neighbour issues:

The Good Neighbour Initiative - Best practice when spraying near to residential areas 

Good Neighbour Initiative - Spray Operator Guide 

How do I report a pesticide exposure incident?
Make a note of the details of the incident as soon as possible, including:

  - where, when and how the exposure took place
  - how long the exposure lasted
  - weather condition, e.g. high winds, very cold or hot

It may be helpful to collect evidence, for example, photographs of the site or of any visible symptoms e.g. a rash. Evidence should be collected as soon as possible, but take care to avoid re-exposure. Do not return to the site if it is unsafe to do so.

If there are any witnesses to the incident ask for their contact details.

Contact the appropriate authority, making it clear that you wish to report a pesticide exposure incident:
Is there a way of finding out if I've been affected by pesticides?
In cases of acute poisoning, it may be fairly clear that the pesticide has caused the problem. Even so, tests may need to be carried out to confirm the diagnosis. This normally has to be done soon after exposure, as many modern pesticides are broken down very quickly by the body and can no longer be detected.
Where can I dispose of my old pesticides?
altOur waste disposal directory provides a list of local council facilities for disposal of pesticide waste
What are chemical conventions?

Chemicals and pesticides are toxic products that can cause massive environmental and health problems if not properly managed. Because many are persistant and move around the environment, poor management in one country can cause problems in another. So the international community has established a number of initiatives to create a set of minimum standards which will protect animals, people and nature globally.

How do the conventions help reduce the risks of pesticides?
The standards that are set in the conventions are accompanied by financial and technical assistance to countries that need help in fulfilling their obligations. Each convention reduces risks in its own way, but they all raise the profile of the inherent danger of hazardous chemicals and establish basic standards that should be respected during the life cycle of chemicals.
How did Obsolete Pesticides get to be such a big problem in developing countries?

Obsolete pesticides have accumulated as a result of various factors including inappropriate procurement, untimely and uncoordinated distribution, inadequate storage and stock management, product bans and donations in excess of actual requirements. Often these now unusable and degraded pesticides were originally donated or purchased for emergency use against plagues of locusts, grasshoppers, armyworms, birds, and disease vectors such as mosquitoes, but were never used

What are obsolete pesticides?
Obsolete pesticides are stocked pesticides that can no longer be used for their intended purpose or for any other intention and therefore require disposal.
How can Obsolete Pesticides be destroyed?

They are hazardous chemical wastes and if not properly disposed of may form a huge source of pollution and contamination. Currently, the most advanced destruction option is high temperature incineration. Other non-incineration technologies include plasma arc, Gas-Phase Chemical Reduction, Bse Catalyzed Decomposition, and others. However these are not large scale operational plants for these. The Africa Stockpiles Programme has conducted a Disposal Technology Options study which reviews these technologies and can be accessed from http://www.fao.org/agriculture/crops/obsolete-pesticides/africa-program/en/


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