40% of food contains pesticide residuesPesticides impact on human health

Pesticides are poisons designed to kill and harm living organisms – and they achieve that very effectively. However, pesticides do not just harm the organisms that they are designed to control. Pesticides impact on non-target organisms, including people.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that over 350 000 people die every year from acute pesticide poisoning. This figure does not include deaths from cancer or other chronic diseases caused by pesticide exposure. Furthermore, the WHO believes that long-term exposure may result in upwards of 750 000 people suffering from specific chronic defects and cancers each year. This number refers to developing countries alone.

There are many exposure routes for pesticides to take. They are in the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we consume. We can also come into contact with them by being close to areas where they are being used. Rural residents can suffer the effects of agricultural pesticide drift, and people in towns and cities can be exposed as a result of spraying on streets, pavements and public areas.

Farmers, farm-workers and their families are one of the groups most frequently exposed and as a result they often have higher rates of pesticide-related ill health. Other groups more vulnerable to the harmful effects of pesticides include children, pregnant women, the elderly and the sick.

Impacts of pesticides on health

1000 people a day die from pesticide exposurePesticides are a drain on developing economies

The costs of illness and injury associated with pesticide use are a major drain on developing world economies. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that these costs in sub-Saharan Africa in 2005 were US$ 4.2 billion. Notably, this is almost equal to the amount received in the region in overseas aid for healthcare that year (excluding Aids programmes).

And the situation is getting worse. UNEP estimates that between 2015 and 2020 the health costs of pesticide exposure in sub-Saharan Africa will amount to US$ 90 billion.

In addition, unfair trading arrangements, exploitative markets and irresponsible pesticide suppliers can drive small farmers into debt. Pesticides can eat up around 60% of a smallholder cotton farmer’s income in West Africa. And harvests are often too meagre to generate enough cash to pay debts.

Impacts of highly hazardous pesticides

Pesticides harm wildlife and the environment

Insecticides kill insects, herbicides kill plants – but these pesticides range further than just killing pests and weeds. In 1962, Rachel Carson published her seminal book Silent Spring. It drew attention to the harm that the use of pesticides, particularly DDT, was doing to insect and subsequently bird populations in the USA. Her work led to a ban in the use of DDT and kick-started the green movement, raising concerns about the use of pesticides and their effects on wildlife and the environment.

Despite this, there are still concerns about the effects of pesticide use on the environment. Most recently we have seen the catastrophic effects on bee and pollinator species that a relatively new class of pesticides, neonicotinoids, has wrought upon them. The European Union has placed a temporary ban on three of these neonicotinoids, however, there are many more pesticides that impact our wildlife directly and indirectly. Farmland birds have been in decline in the UK since the 1970’s. This is in part related to the use of pesticides.

There are also serious concerns about the loss of wildflower diversity in the UK. This is, in part, attributable to the over-reliance in herbicides, particularly glyphosate-based products. Our water is contaminated with pesticides. Not all are possible to remove from water before it is supplied to us to drink. And the cost of removal, millions of pounds per year, is passed on to us, the consumer, in our water bills.

Not only do pesticides persist (remain) in the environment, they are also highly mobile. Polar bears have been found with residues of pesticides in their bodies. Wildflowers next to crops that have been treated with neonicotinoids have high levels of those pesticides within them. And almost everybody on the planet will have residues of pesticides in their bodies, even pesticides such as DDT that were banned long before they were born.

Pesticides are everywhere, polluting and contaminating people and planet, destroying livelihoods but reaping huge benefits for the companies that make them. There is another way and it is vital that we step of the pesticide treadmill before it is too late.

PAN UK is here to show you how we can achieve a more sustainable, pesticide-free world.

Impacts of pesticides on the environment