Can pesticides or herbicides cause cancer?

  • Eating food grown on farms that use pesticides or herbicides doesn’t increase cancer risk
     
  • Using weed killer when gardening does not increase cancer risk
     
  • People who work with the highest levels of pesticides may have a small increased cancer risk

Pesticides are chemicals that help plants grow by controlling pests like weeds (herbicides) and bugs (insecticides). Most people only come into contact with very small amounts on some food items or when gardening.

 

Do pesticides on food cause cancer?

No. There can be small amounts of pesticides or herbicides on the surface of what we eat. But levels are low and do not increase the risk of cancer in people.

The Food Standards Agency monitors food safety in the UK. They make sure that the levels of pesticides in food in the UK are not harmful for human health.

The NHS also recommended washing fruit and vegetables before you eat them to remove any possible bacteria leftover from the soil. This will ensure they are clean and safe to eat.

 

Can weed killers (such as glyphosate) cause cancer?

Glyphosate is a herbicide (weed killer). It’s often used in farming as well as home gardening.

Using glyphosate at low levels does not increase the risk of cancer. This includes using it as a weed killer in the garden.

 

Are agricultural workers and farmers at higher risk?

People working with high levels of pesticides, may have a small increased risk of some types of cancer. This could include people who work in some industries or farming.

But we need more research to know if people exposed to the highest levels of glyphosate have an increased risk of cancer. And if cancer risk is increased, it would likely take many years to develop.

There are regulations on pesticide use to protect workers and the public on a global and UK level. Strict policies are set out by the World Health Organisation, and the Health and Safety Executive.

 

Low levels of pesticides and herbicides in food or through gardening don’t cause cancer. But there are other proven causes of cancer, and things you can do to reduce your risk.

We regularly review new research on the causes of cancer to make sure our information is up to date and based on the best quality evidence. We develop our information by looking at lots of research carried out over many years. So, although new research comes out all the time, it is unlikely that one new study would change our position on a topic.  

Some studies are better than others at telling us about how different factors affect cancer risk. These are some of the things we consider:

  • Did the study look at cells, animals or people?

Studies in animals and cells can help scientists understand how cancer works, but they can’t always tell us how it’s relevant to humans. So we focus on studies in people.

  • How big is the study and how long did it go on for?

Studies on small numbers of people aren’t as reliable, because results are more likely to happen by chance. And studies that only follow people for a short amount of time can miss long-term effects. So we mainly look at studies that follow thousands of people over many years.

  • Did the study account for other factors that could affect someone’s cancer risk?

There are lots of factors that can affect someone’s risk of cancer. Studies should take known risk factors into account. For example, if a study is looking at air pollution and lung cancer, it should also look at whether participants smoked.

  • Where is the study published and who funded it?

It’s important to see if a study is published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. This means that other experts have checked the results. It’s also important to know who funded the study, as this can affect the findings. For example, Cancer Research UK disregards research funded by the tobacco industry.

How to find accurate information on cancer

Sometimes news outlets exaggerate stories about cancer. It’s helpful to think about some of the questions above to judge a news story. But the most important thing is to get information from a trusted source– for example our website and the NHS.

One way of knowing if you can trust health information is by checking if the Patient Information Forum (PIF) has accredited it. The PIF makes sure that information is based on up to date evidence and is high quality.

The Patient Information Forum tick looks like this.

Patient Information Tick

You can read more about spotting fake news on cancer on our blog.

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. 2021 update. 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.

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

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