According to the Toxics Action Center (TAC), pesticides constitute a broad category of chemicals that can include fungicides, herbicides, rodenticides, and insecticides, which are collectively used often enough to make pesticides potentially serious environmental threats. Understanding the health consequences of pesticide exposure is essential for health-conscious consumers trying to make informed decisions, as well as policymakers trying to regulate pesticide usage appropriately.
Determining the Health Consequences
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), different pesticides can lead to different types of health problems. For instance, the EPA states that carbamates and organophosphates can influence the nervous system, while other pesticides may cause cancer or hormonal problems.
On a societal level, the danger of using certain pesticides is also going to depend upon how long it takes for them to degrade in the environment. For instance, the EPA states that although organophosphate pesticides can be highly toxic, their environmental persistence is relatively low. People are much more likely to be exposed to persistent pesticides.
The Pesticide Action Network (PAN) stresses the importance of timing when it comes to contact with pesticides. PAN indicates that developing fetuses that come in contact with pesticides that have neurotoxic effects will be more likely to develop learning disabilities or birth defects. Adults may be less vulnerable to pesticide exposure to children, but they are still at risk.
Pesticide Types and Related Health Consequences
- Organochlorine insecticides, such as chlordane and DDT, were once nearly ubiquitous but have been largely discontinued, according to the EPA. However, according to PAN, at least 99 percent of Americans have still been exposed to the degradants of DDT, which is a carcinogen.
- Organophosphate pesticides are insecticides that can have a negative impact on the nervous system, according to the EPA.
- Pyrethroid pesticides have a high degree of environmental persistence, and some of them can act as neurotoxins, according to the EPA.
According to TAC, people who have been exposed to pesticides may develop symptoms of nausea or mild headaches within a relatively short timeframe. Farmworker Justice (FJ) states that farmworkers, who regularly come in direct contact with pesticides, may quickly develop skin problems, feelings of dizziness, digestive problems, or eye irritation. The EPA says that it is usually specific pesticides that aggravate a person's eyes or skin, so the specific short-term symptoms that patients develop may not be random.
While most short-term symptoms of pesticide exposure are mild, a sufficiently large pesticide exposure in a brief period of time can still cause severe immediate symptoms. FJ indicates that respiratory problems, seizures, and even fatalities have been linked to significant pesticide exposure. Most people are unlikely to run into pesticide exposure like that over the course of their daily lives, but it is an occupational hazard for some.
The chronic health consequences of pesticide exposure can include different types of cancer as well as neurological problems, according to FJ, in addition to fertility problems and birth defects. According to TAC, some of the cancers that can result from pesticide exposure can include prostate, brain, liver, bone, ovarian, and testicular cancer, as well as leukemia and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
While people that have received larger toxic loads over time will probably experience the more severe consequences at an earlier date, FJ indicates that the smaller pesticide exposures that people regularly encounter can still result in severe health consequences over time. The reproductive consequences of pesticide exposure can also cause the negative effects of pesticides to travel across generational lines, regardless of changes in pesticide regulations.
Addressing Pesticide Problems
PAN states that many people can minimize their contact with pesticides by choosing organic food. However, given the widespread reliance on pesticides in multiple industries, it is difficult to avoid them entirely.
The long-term human health effects from pesticide exposure are still not perfectly understood by medical professionals. New regulations concerning pesticides may change the current situation, but the persistence of certain environmental pesticides may make the problem difficult to solve in the short-term.