‘Cocktail effect’ of pesticides in food creates threat to public health

Evidence grows that chemicals can combine to become more toxic
13 October 2021 , Steve Smethurst

Government data shows fruit and vegetable samples contain pesticides above the accepted level, with each item analysed containing more than one pesticide. Activists fear the combination of multiple chemicals could be particularly damaging to health, while DEFRA maintains that more than 97% of tested samples were compliant with strict pesticide rules in 2020.

Food sold in the UK contains a dangerous “cocktail of pesticides” according to research by Pesticide Action Network UK (PAN). The charity, which is part of a global network, analysed government data on residue levels in food consumed in the UK from 2018-2020 and found traces of 122 different pesticides in the 12 most polluted fruit and vegetable products.

In 2020, the government tested 2,460 samples of 33 different types of food and tested for up to 371 pesticides. Samples of potatoes, pumpkin, peas, pears, oranges, okra, kiwi, herbs, grapes, cauliflower and beans all had pesticides above the accepted level. Every fruit and vegetable analysed contained more than one pesticide, particularly grapes (87% of the samples) oranges (86%) and herbs and dried fruit (81%).

Many of the pesticides found were groundwater contaminants, potentially having an impact on aquatic biodiversity and drinking water quality. PAN claimed the pesticides pose a danger to public health, stating that 61% are classified as highly hazardous pesticides (HHPs), a concept used by the UN to identify those substances most harmful to human health or the environment.

The list of pesticides also included 47 with links to cancer, 15 “reproductive or developmental toxins” that can have adverse effects on sexual function and fertility, and 17 cholinesterase inhibitors that can impair the respiratory system and cause confusion, headaches and weakness.

The data did show a drop in the overall percentage of fruit and vegetables containing more than one pesticide, falling from 48% in 2019 to 30% in 2020. However, PAN highlighted the UK’s decision not to analyse strawberries, lemons or pre-packed salad, which ranked on top of the list on the use of pesticides for the previous year. 

“While safety limits continue to be set for just one pesticide at a time, evidence is growing that chemicals can combine to be more toxic, a phenomenon known as the cocktail effect.”Nick Mole, PAN spokesman

Activists fear the combination of multiple chemicals could be particularly damaging to health. PAN spokesman, Nick Mole said: “These figures highlight the wide array of chemicals that we are exposed to daily through our diets. While safety limits continue to be set for just one pesticide at a time, evidence is growing that chemicals can combine to be more toxic, a phenomenon known as the cocktail effect.”

A Defra spokesperson said that all food sold in the UK met strict rules on pesticide residue and more than 97% of tested samples were compliant in 2020. Defra also continues to encourage a move away from chemical pest control and has recently consulted on a national plan to minimise the impacts of pesticides and increase the uptake of safer alternatives.

Gary McFarlane, Director of Northern Ireland CIEH, said that the emerging evidence around the ‘cocktail’ effect of pesticide use was of concern. “It suggests that there may need to be a review of the current UK regulatory system that controls pesticide use. We also need better understanding of the longer-term exposure to these pesticide cocktails. Organic food production, which eliminates the use of any pesticides, is also to be further incentivised and encouraged. There are clear health benefits as well as wider environmental ones.”

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