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Hazard control

6th March 2009

At least one in every 100 cancers diagnosed each year in Europe could be directly related to our exposure to pesticides. A recent report commissioned by the European Parliament suggests that 30,000 of the 3 million cancers diagnosed in EU countries each year are associated with hazardous chemicals contained in certain pesticides.

For some cancers, such as breast, prostate, testicular, leukaemia and lymphomas, the percentage could be considerably higher than one per cent.

Scientific reviews have confirmed an association between household or occupational pesticide exposure and certain cancers, including leukaemia, brain tumours, Wilm’s tumours, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, sarcomas and prostate cancer.

Children and pregnant women need special protection because pesticide exposure during childhood and in the womb has been associated with cancers in infancy and later in adult life. Low-intensity exposure to pesticides may also trigger brain defects as the foetus develops in the womb. Pesticide exposure has also been linked to Parkinson’s Disease and Alzheimer’s.

The EU-funded research project Geoparkinson strengthened the evidence of an association with pesticide use and confirmed that those at risk included users of pesticides at work and at home. Pesticide exposure during childhood may also increase the risk of asthma, the leading cause of school absenteeism due to chronic illness.

The EU has just introduced two laws on pesticides sale and sustainable use to reduce the negative effects of pesticides on human health and the environment.

The move represents a significant opportunity to eliminate the most hazardous pesticides in use at the national level. If implemented correctly, the reform will also seriously reduce the "cosmetic use of pesticides", in particular in public areas such as parks, playgrounds and schools and sports grounds.

By phasing out the use of chemicals, local authorities and park managers can take control of what happens locally, push for policy change at national level, provide the public with safer green spaces and help cut the rate of preventable diseases

The UK government and other member states will have to collaborate with stakeholders to develop national action plans (NAPs) to reduce the use of pesticides. It is here that local and regional authorities and EHPs can help achieve the highest levels of health protection, especially for children and other vulnerable groups.

Sick of pesticides

The Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) has launched a European-wide "Sick of Pesticides" campaign to increase information and debate about how pesticides may affect people’s health, and to increase EHPs’ involvement in the development of NAPs. Their input is vital.

The campaign aims to achieve:

  • A ban on pesticides that are known, or suspected, to be hazardous
  • A reduction in the use of pesticides to eliminate or minimise exposure
  • Strong regulation to eliminate pesticide use in areas where children are most exposed
  • Health care strategies and national cancer plans to reduce exposure to pesticides as part of the primary prevention of cancer
  • An informal network of people and groups ready to act to reduce the impact pesticides may be having on cancer incidence.

HEAL’s pesticides and cancer website provides information on how to join and be involved in the NAP debate, and resources on pesticide-related diseases. A Facebook group "Sick of Pesticides" disseminates the latest news and comments, including videos from involved citizens to expert scientists. By responding to a one-question poll, visitors can make their voice heard on pesticides and health.

The campaign began with a focus on France, where HEAL is working with the Movement for the Rights and Respect of Future Generations.

This year HEAL began working with a wide range of campaign groups, including the Pesticides Action Network UK (PAN UK).

It launched a project last November with the aim of achieving pesticides-free public green spaces in London in time for the launch of the Olympics in 2012.

Several London boroughs are involved in reducing the use of pesticides, and some London parks already operate pesticides-free regimes. This growing trend reflects recognition of the inherent risk to humans, pets, other animals and flora and the inessential nature of herbicide used to control and eradicate weeds and pests.

PAN UK plans to work with all 33 London boroughs as well as park managers, the public and other groups to achieve this goal over the next three and a half years. Its aim is to encourage those that are reducing pesticide use to go further and for those that have not yet begun to make a start. Ideally, the NAP will ensure all local authorities will operate pesticides-free regimes in key areas.

Other groups across Europe and North America have made strides in phasing out cosmetic pesticide use to safeguard human health. A Canadian Centre for Pollution Prevention report highlights case studies.

In response to a national strategy to prevent groundwater contamination, the Danish government worked with the village of Frejlev, near Aalborg, to reduce municipal pesticide use and improve the quality of ground water. By 1997, half the community had agreed to support the pesticides-free initiative, including a phase-out of the use of pesticides for cosmetic purposes. Local shops ceased to sell them and offered alternatives for pest management. The municipality made advice services available and distributed on-demand propane torches to burn weeds. A safe pesticides disposal initiative collected 27kg of unused household pesticides.

Residential pesticide use dropped by more than 50 per cent. Halting the supply and sale of pesticides was thought to be a key to success. The initiative has since spread to nearby villages in the Aalborg municipality.

In Germany, the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg amended its pesticide regulation in 1991 to prevent the use of pesticides for purposes other than agriculture, forestry or commercial horticultural nurseries. The ban covered all parks, green spaces, sports facilities, cemeteries and household gardens. Some exceptions could be granted after application for a permit.

Canada acts

Several municipalities in Quebec, Canada, including Hudson, St. Lazare and Notre Dame have banned pesticides for residential use but the sale of pesticides is still permitted. Providing educational pamphlets, public talks and workshops, and an information hotline has reinforced the by-law’s implementation. Home patrols supported the use of alternative techniques. Warning letters and threats of escalating fines helped to enforce compliance. This achieved a high level of pesticides reduction for a cost of €0.3-0.6 per person.

At the provincial level, Quebec introduced legislation in 2002 that gradually reduced the sale of pesticides containing certain banned ingredients. This culminated in a ban on such pesticides in 2006, with the exception of cases of infestation. Since then there has been a 50 per cent reduction in the number of households using these chemicals.

The phase-in of pesticides regulation was aided by summer inspections between 2005 and 2007 to assess compliance, raise community awareness and make follow-up visits.

In France, two communities in Loiret department, south-west of Orleans, have reduced use of pesticides by over 90 per cent. Three organisations, Loiret Nature Environnement (LNE), la FREDON Centre and les Jardinières de France (Gardeners of France) launched the pesticide-reduction project in Saint-Pryv´e Saint-Mesmin and Boigny-sur-Bionne.

In Saint-Pryv´e-Saint-Mesmin, a commune of 887 hectares, sales of herbicides fell by 77 per cent with a corresponding 92 per cent reduction in the use of pesticides for cosmetic use. During the first year, pest control involved mainly chemical and pesticide alternatives. In the second year, a weeding machine was purchased so that the chemicals could often be replaced entirely.

The smaller community of Boigny-sur-Bionne, with 73 hectares, reduced its dependence on herbicides for cosmetic use by 93 per cent from 25.5kg in 2006. No "phytosanitaires" (biocides) were sold in the village. By the second year, hoes and other simple technology measures were being used to weed out pests on roadsides.

National strategy

These case studies illustrate some key ingredients to successfully phasing-out the cosmetic use of pesticides. The report says that by-laws plus public education achieves a reduction of 51 per cent to 90 per cent in the use of pesticides for cosmetic purposes. Education alone is less effective. Crucially, many involved major national strategies or regional initiatives.

Enforcement of municipal or regional by-laws is also fundamental in the case of non-compliance. Equally important is the regulation of local sales. The best compliance results came when alternatives replace pesticides on store shelves and advice on alternative approaches is freely available.

Official European surveys repeatedly show that citizens want more environmental protection. A recent survey in France on pesticides use in agriculture showed 81 per cent of respondents were in favour of reductions.

New regulation, through ambitious national action plans, is needed to complement and encourage the widespread uptake of alternatives and to provide the resources to achieve pesticides reduction.

By phasing out the cosmetic use of pesticides, local authorities and park managers can take control of what happens locally, push for policy change at national level, and provide the public with safer green spaces, protect water quality, and help bring down the rates of a variety of chronic, preventable diseases. n

Genon K Jensen is executive director at the Health and Environment Alliance.

HEAL’s Pesticides & Cancer website in English and French (www.pesticidescancer.eu)