Pesticides and cancer
Pesticides are widely used in agriculture and there are concerns that they could increase the risk of cancer.
Some studies have suggested that pesticides could increase the risk of leukaemia, lymphomas, brain cancer, breast cancer and prostate cancer For now, the evidence is not strong enough to give us any clear answers.
Agricultural workers and farmers
People exposed to higher levels of pesticides as part of their job – for example in industry or in farming - may be at slightly higher risk of certain cancers, particularly leukaemias and lymphomas.
The International Agency for Research into Cancer (IARC) have looked at the evidence and said that regularly spraying pesticides as part of your job “probably” slightly increases the risk of cancer.
But for individual pesticides, the evidence was either too weak to come to a conclusion, or only strong enough to suggest a “possible” effect.
Some potentially dangerous pesticides such as DDT and lindane have been used in the past but are now banned.
Problems with the evidence
The scientific evidence on pesticides and cancer is still uncertain and more research is needed in this area. So far, the studies that have been done share common problems:
- They usually involve a small number of people. This makes it more likely that their results are down to chance.
- It is difficult to work out the amounts of pesticides that people were actually exposed to. Most studies estimate these exposures based on things like a person’s job. Others ask people with cancer to remember whether and how they used pesticides in the past. Their answers might not be accurate and they may be influenced by worries that pesticides were responsible for their cancer.
- There is a wide variety of pesticides and it is not clear which, if any, affect the risk of cancer.
- The results from different studies are not consistent. Some suggest that pesticides increase the risk of cancer but others do not.
Pesticides on fruit and vegetables
High doses of some pesticides can cause cancer in animals, but the levels found in foods are much, much lower.
Fruit and vegetables sometimes contain very small amounts of pesticides so it is a good idea to rinse fruit and vegetables before eating them. But there is no evidence that these small amounts increase the risk of cancer in people who eat them. In fact, eating lots of fruit and vegetables actually reduces your risk of several cancers, despite any pesticide residues on them.
Question about cancer? Contact our information nurse team