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Pesticides and cancer

Pesticide traces on fruit and vegetables do not increase cancer riskPesticides 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, lymphoma, brain tumours, breast cancer and prostate cancer. But for now, the evidence is not strong enough to show a definite link.

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 most individual pesticides, the evidence was either too weak to come to a conclusion, or only strong enough to suggest a “possible” effect.

To protect workers, and also the public, pesticide use is monitored and regulated on a global, European and UK level, by the World Health Organisation, the European Environment Agency and the Health and Safety Executive. These websites have information on how workers can make sure they are using these products as safely as possible. These regulatory organisations have also banned potentially dangerous pesticides such as DDT and lindane.

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:

  • Some only 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. Some studies estimate these exposures based only 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 different pesticides and it is extremely difficult to separate out the effects of each of these, as well as farmers' exposure to other chemicals or factors associated with the job.
  • 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. The Food Standards Agency is responsible for food safety and standards in the UK. The Agency considers that current levels of pesticide residues in the UK food supply does not present a significant concern for human health.

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, fruit and vegetables are an important part of a balanced diet, providing vitamins, minerals and fibre - and people who eat plenty of fruit and vegetables may have a slightly lower cancer risk. 

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Updated: 27 March 2014