Pesticides and chemical pollution

Posted: 29 September 2007

In many regions, especially in the developing world, environmental health problems are made worse by pollution from industry and agriculture. Chemical agents, particularly airborne ones, are major factors in causing and worsening tuberculosis, bronchitis, heart disease, cancers and asthma.

  • Cancers linked to pesticide exposure include: brain cancer, breast cancer, liver cancer, stomach cancer, bladder cancer, kidney cancer, skin cancer, prostate cancer, rectal cancer, pancreatic cancer, lung cancer, ovarian cancer, testicular cancer, soft-tissue sarcomas, multiple myeloma, leukaemia and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. (see Environmental Justice Foundation report, What's Your Poison?)

  • Recent studies have suggested a link between organochlorine pesticides and cancer, including lymphoma and breast cancer.

  • Pesticide exposures are also linked to developmental disorders, birth defects, immunological and neurological disease, and sudden death.

Spraying pesticides© Chris Stowers/Panos Pictures
Spraying pesticides© Chris Stowers/Panos Pictures
Spraying pesticides. Photo © Chris Stowers / Panos Pictures
  • Children are especially at risk of pesticide poisoning - that many are active in agriculture and use pesticides is of grave concern. Half of Cambodian farmers surveyed recently by FAO said they allowed their children to spray crops.

  • Exposure to pesticides, fertilisers and heavy metals poses health risks through soil, water, air and food contamination. Global pesticide use has resulted in up to 5 million acute pesticide poisonings per year.

  • The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in 2002 estimated that there are 500,0000 tonnes of obsolete pesticides worldwide and 120,000 in Africa alone.

  • Around 30 per cent of pesticides marketed in developing countries with an estimated market value of US$ 900 million annually do not meet internationally accepted quality standards and pose a serious threat to human health and the environment.

  • Synthetic chemicals which mimic human hormones may be responsible for falling human sperm counts and changes in the reproductive systems of wildlife.

  • A treaty known as the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) entered into force in 2004. It focuses on eliminating or reducing the releases of 12 POPs, the so called "Dirty Dozen". If it is effective it could greatly help eliminate these pollutants from the world's environment. However, some experts believe a radical reform of manufacturing and farming processes will be needed (see: Toxic treaty is good news: but 'not enough').

  • Levels of heavy metals and organic pollutants in Greenland's Inuit population can be 10 to 20 times higher than in most temperate regions. Indigenous people who rely on traditional diets are especially liable to be exposed to several toxic substances. Arctic seabirds and mammals are also affected (see:Poisoning the purity of the Arctic).

  • Arsenic in the groundwater is poisoning up to 50 million people in Bangladesh, with children being the worst affected. Arsenic contamination also occurs in neighbouring West Bengal, and is known in other countries in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas. The reasons for it are not fully understood (see: Arsenic on tap).