Pesticides May Cause Prostate Cancer

Date: 11 Jan 2005
Time: 02:02:26
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Pesticides may cause prostate cancer, say government advisers James Meikle, health correspondent.

 Monday January 10, 2005

The Guardian Government cancer advisers have for the first time said pesticides, particularly weedkillers, might cause prostate cancer and want better monitoring of their use, the Guardian has learned. There must be more information on occupational exposure of farmers and farmworkers to agricultural chemicals, said the committee on carcinogenicity in a statement that has encouraged environmental campaigners. Friends of the Earth also pointed out that while workers wore protective gear for spraying, many who lived near fields being treated, including children, did not. There was far too little information on this risk too, it said.

The Department of Health's advisory committee has been reviewing reasons for a huge increase in prostate cancer over the past 20 years. Farm working was the only possible job-related link to prostate cancer to which any endorsement was given. Experts on pesticide safety, reporting to Defra, the environment department, will consider what steps to take at a meeting on Thursday. But officials told the Guardian that it would be extremely difficult to estimate exposure to the chemicals. Prostate cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed in men in Britain with 27,000 new cases a year, with a lifetime risk of one in 13.

There are nearly 9,950 deaths but survival rates are improving. In a statement on its website, the committee discounted large-scale environmental factors since a study of geographical incidence of prostate cancer in the UK found no significant differences. But the committee concluded, after studying a number of research papers, including in the US and Canada, "there was some evidence to suggest an association between farmers and farm workers, exposure to pesticides and increased risk of prostate cancer". While not suggesting any new government research into the issue, members said the "potential association" should be kept under review and commented "on the need for improved measures of exposure to pesticides and particularly herbicides".

The government's code of practice at present tells those responsible for the spraying of pesticides that monitoring exposure "will not usually be necessary" if the pesticide is used to manufacturers' instructions and proper control measures are applied. Employers must put their workers under surveillance if there is a danger that an identifiable disease or risk to health may be related to exposure to chemicals and valid techniques existed for detecting indications of the disease. The guidance from the Pesticide Safety Directorate, part of Defra, also suggests that in practice the pesticides to which these are most likely to apply are those that can cause skin disorders and organophosphorus products.

The directorate said total pesticides used in Britain fell from 34.5m kg in 1990 to 30.6m kg in 2003. Larger areas were sprayed but in a more diluted form. Weedkillers accounted for just over a quarter of all pesticide use. Sandra Bell, pesticides campaigner for Friends of the Earth, said: "This is one of those areas where government up to now has said we have seen no evidence on which to take action. It is really helpful in backing up concerns we have been raising for a number of years." But the National Farmers' Union was sceptical, saying the issue had not been raised by any members.

A Defra spokesman said any new evidence would be carefully considered. But it was difficult to determine whether individuals were exposed to risk and to what levels. "This is particularly difficult where it may be necessary to go back over several years or decades as in the case of cancers."

Last changed: March 14, 2006