Impacts of pesticides on health

Pesticides are poisons and, unfortunately, they can harm more than just the “pests” at which they are targeted. They are toxic, and exposure to pesticides can not only cause a number of health effects, but is linked to a range of serious illnesses and diseases in humans, from respiratory problems to cancer.


Exposure to pesticides can occur in many ways. Exposure can occur in agriculture, through the treatment of crops, plants and grain stores. It can occur in forestry, gardening, professional and domestic pest control and through the spraying and use of amenities e.g. our parks, pavements and playgrounds. Exposure can also occur through the treatment of wood with preservatives, the treatment of boat hulls with anti-fouling agents, and the treatment of livestock with anti-parasitic preparations, e.g. sheep dip etc. In addition, pesticide residues found on, and in, our food also puts us at risk.

Impacts on Women and Children

What is a carcinogen?
Farm workers spraying field with pesticides

Should you be concerned?

Acute toxicity

Pesticides can be acutely toxic. This means that they can cause harmful or lethal effects after one single episode of ingestion, inhalation or skin contact. The symptoms are evident shortly after exposure or can arise within 48 hours. They can present as:

  • respiratory tract irritation, sore throat and/or cough
  • allergic sensitisation
  • eye and skin irritation
  • nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea
  • headache, loss of consciousness
  • extreme weakness, seizures and/or death

Long term (or chronic) toxicity

Pesticides can cause harmful effects over an extended period, usually following repeated or continuous exposure at low levels. Low doses don’t always cause immediate effects, but over time, they can cause very serious illnesses.

Long term pesticide exposure has been linked to the development of Parkinson’s disease; asthma; depression and anxiety; cancer, including leukaemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma; and attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Asthma pump

Endocrine disruptors

The term endocrine disruptor refers to substances that interfere with hormones and hormone balance. Hormones are the chemical messengers of the body. They are necessary to regulate different functions, in particular growth and reproductive functions.

The endocrine effects can be activated by very low concentrations of chemicals. They can manifest as:

  • reduced semen quality with consequent decreased fertility, genital malformations, testicular and prostate cancer
  • early puberty, appearance of cysts in the ovaries, uterus anomalies, breast cancer, pregnancy complications with early abortions, decreased fertility
  • diabetes and obesity
  • neurological disorders, especially disorders in brain development, and degenerative diseases in the brain, such as Parkinson’s disease
  • hyper and hypo thyroidism and thyroid tumours.

Combined effects

Another problem is that the effect of an individual chemical can be enhanced or changed if it is combined with another substance. Every day we are exposed to a cocktail of chemicals and the fact is that nobody knows what effect this consistent low level exposure to such a mixture of chemicals is having on us. We are being experimented on.

Reducing and stopping our exposure to pesticides is our key aim. There is certainly no need to be using pesticides in the schools, playgrounds, streets and the open places where we work and play. You can help us do this by starting (or joining) a pesticide-free campaign in your own town or city.

Find out more about our Pesticide-Free Towns Campaign

Our Work

Tackling pesticide threat in Georgia

In 2016 PAN-UK worked with a partner organisation, Ecolife, to help the Ministry of Agriculture in Georgia identify hazardous pesticide practices and products in the country.

20% of respondents experienced signs and symptoms of pesticide poisoning over the previous twelve months, with some experiencing symptoms more than five times per year.

Tackling pesticide threat in Georgia
Find out more