Can pesticides or herbicides cause cancer?

No. There is no good evidence that eating foods with small amounts of pesticides or herbicides on the surface can increase the risk of cancer in people. 

The Food Standards Agency is responsible for food safety in the UK. Currently they consider that levels of pesticides found on food in the UK does not cause a significant concern for human health. 

Can glyphosate cause cancer?

Glyphosate is an herbicide (weed killer). It is commonly used in farming as well as home gardening.

There is no good evidence that people exposed to glyphosate at low levels, for example when using it as a weed killer in their garden, have an increased risk of cancer.

Are agricultural workers and farmers at higher risk?

There is some evidence that people who come into contact with the highest levels of pesticides, for example in industry or farming, may have a small increased risk of certain types of cancer.

To protect workers, and the public, pesticide use is checked and regulated on a global, European and UK level, by the World Health Organisation, the European Food Safety Agency  and the Health and Safety Executive.

There are many cancer myths, including pesticides, that haven't been proven to cause cancer. However, there are proven causes of cancer, and things you can do to reduce your risk.

Image showing that mobile phones, plastic bottles and cosmetics do not cause cancer

We regularly review and evaluate newly published research into the causes of cancer in order to shape our health information. And there are key things we look out for to evaluate any new study.

What type of study is it?

Was the study looking at cells in a dish, animals or people? Studies in animals and cells can help scientists understand the basics of cancer but they cannot replicate how things will work in humans.

So, we focus more on studies in people as they can show with much more certainty how something affects the risk of developing cancer in humans. The best studies also account for other factors that could affect someone’s cancer risk, such as whether they smoke or drink.

How many people were in the study, and how long were they followed for? Studies involving only a handful of people aren’t likely to be as reliable, because results are more likely to happen by chance. And studies that only follow people for a short timeframe can miss any potential long-term effects. Therefore, we mainly look at studies that follow hundreds or usually thousands of people for a long time because they give results we can be surer of.

Who carried out the study and where is it published?

It’s important to see if a study was published in a scientific journal and was carried out by scientists that work for a university or known institute. This is because before researchers can publish their findings in a journal, other experts who were not involved in the study will check it is accurate.

How does the study fit in with previous evidence?

Some studies show conflicting results, but we evaluate any new study within the context of all the available research and give more weight to the most rigorous scientific studies.

How to spot fake news about cancer?

Sometimes news outlets can over-inflate stories about cancer, whether it’s a new treatment, or news on what could lower or increase your risk of developing the disease. You can use the same questions we discussed above to judge a study and news story yourself.  For more tips on how to spot fake news visit our blog here.

 

Executive H and S. Pesticides. Available at: http://www.hse.gov.uk/pesticides/.

Department for Environment F& RA and H and SE. Pesticide residues in food: results of monitoring programme. Collection. 2015. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/pesticide-residues-in-food-res....

IARC. Monograph 53: Occupational exposures in insecticide application and some pesticides. 1991.

IARC. Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans Volume 112.

Freeman et al. Glyphosate Use and Cancer Incidence in the Agricultural Health Study. J Natl Cancer Inst. 110(5):509-516. (2016)

Delzell et al. Systematic review and meta-analysis of glyphosate exposure and risk of lymphohematopoietic cancers. J Environ Sci Health B. 51(6): 402–434. (2016)    

 

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