No matter where you live or how careful you are, it is likely that you’ve been exposed to pesticides. Those gorgeous veggies and colorful fruits in the produce section? Grown with pesticides. Your friendly neighbor spraying his yard for weeds? Pesticides galore. Pest control guys spraying your house for ants and spiders? That’d be pesticides. And, of course, every time you use bug spray to kill that scary roach, you’re using pesticides too! Like it or not, pesticides are everywhere and some level of exposure is inevitable. Yet, not many people are aware of what pesticides are or how they affect human health.
Pesticides Are Poison!
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, a pesticide is any substance that is used to destroy, repel, control, or prevent plants and animals considered to be “pests.”1 Pesticides can include fungicides (used to prevent mildew and mold), herbicides (used to destroy weeds), and insecticides (used to repel or kill various insects). Put simply, pesticides are specifically designed to be toxic or poisonous to pests.
They Can Be Toxic To Humans, Too
Since pesticides are intended to be toxic, they are “biologically active” agents, created to elicit a physiological reaction.2 This means that although they are effective in pest control, they can potentially endanger humans, household pets, and the environment as well. In fact, pesticide poisoning (and related fatalities) are a fairly common occurrence, with over five million cases occurring each year across the world.3
Impact Of Pesticides On Human Health: Can Be Topical Or Systemic
Experts broadly classify the effects of pesticides as topical or systemic. Topical reactions are usually limited to areas of the body that have come in direct contact with a pesticide. Inflammation of the skin (dermatitis) such as a rash or blisters is usually the most common topical symptom. Other topical reactions may include sneezing, wheezing, and coughing, usually triggered by petroleum distillates that many pesticides contain.4
Remember that pesticides can trigger a range of side effects and that people have varying sensitivities to different chemicals. So the same pesticide can cause severe illness in one person while another person could show no symptoms at all.
Systemic effects of pesticide poisoning are rather different from topical reactions. They are also more difficult to diagnose because you have already absorbed the pesticide and symptoms can show long after initial exposure. Signs to watch out for include headache, fatigue, nausea, intestinal problems, and difficulty in breathing. Severe pesticide poisoning can cause seizures, change in heart rate, and sometimes even coma and death.5
Short-Term Effects Of Pesticides
Short-term pesticide poisoning or acute toxicity from pesticides is usually the result of a single and brief exposure to a pesticide. This kind of poisoning can happen due to exposure via the skin, inhalation, through the eyes, or orally.6 Symptoms of acute toxicity can become apparent instantly or take as long as 48 hours. Short-term effects of pesticides can manifest as:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Loss of consciousness
- Coughing and sore throat
- Extreme weakness78
Long-Term Effects Of Pesticides
While continual, low-dose exposure to pesticides don’t usually show immediate effects, they cause serious harm to human health in the long term.
- Repeated exposure to pesticides, even in small doses, has been linked to a number of diseases such as cancer, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, sterility, and developmental disorders.9
- Chronic exposure to pesticides can also lead to genetic changes and serious nerve disorders.10
- Some studies have even linked pesticides to asthma, ADHD, depression, and anxiety.11
- Some pesticides contain chemicals that may be endocrine disruptors. These types of pesticides can be especially damaging because they interfere with our hormones and hormonal balance. Over a period of time, even low concentrations of these chemicals can cause obesity, diabetes, thyroid tumors, decreased fertility, uterus abnormalities, and early puberty.
- Lastly, pesticides are also known to cause neurological issues such as loss of memory and coordination, visual impairment, mood instability, and reduced motor skills.12 13 14
Effects Of Pesticides On Pregnant Women
Exposure to pesticides and pesticide residue can lower fertility in women. A Harvard study found that women who ate more than two servings of fruits or vegetables with high pesticide residue each day were 18% less likely to become pregnant and 26% less likely to have a live birth compared to women with lower exposure.15
Expectant mothers need to be extra vigilant about pesticide exposure. Pesticides contain chemicals that attack the nervous system of pests, causing them to die. In the first trimester of your pregnancy, the baby’s nervous system develops rapidly, so pregnant women should definitely steer clear of pesticides, even if it’s just household bug spray. Pregnant women exposed to chemicals in lawn and garden care pesticides are also at a higher risk for having babies with cleft palate, heart defects, neural tube defects, and limb abnormalities.16 Some studies have also demonstrated a link between pesticide exposure and miscarriages, perinatal death, and premature birth.17
Effects Of Pesticides On Kids
Children are especially susceptible to harmful effects of pesticides.18 They can easily become exposed to pesticides (via inhalation or skin contact) in schools, daycare, playgrounds, hospitals, and any other public areas, no matter how careful you are.
Kids’ bodies are smaller and still growing, they take more breaths per minute, and they also eat and drink more relative to their weight – all factors that make them more likely to absorb pesticides and residue. Their little kidneys and liver also cannot eliminate pesticides from their bloodstream as effectively as an adult’s.19
Children can show symptoms of acute toxicity discussed above (rashes, respiratory difficulty etc.) but the more worrisome effects include developmental disorders and impacts on brain growth.20 Among children, pesticides have been associated with low birth weight, preterm birth, childhood cancer, asthma, ADHD, autism, cognitive deficits, and lower IQ.21
Effects Of Pesticides On The Environment
Widespread use of pesticides in agriculture has experts worried due to their long-term environmental damage. Some pesticides can stick around for years, posing a very real threat to the ecological system and hence human health. Excessive and careless use of pesticides can contaminate water sources and soil, make fruits and vegetables less nutritious, and reduce biodiversity. Some pesticides have also been linked to the dramatic reduction in the number of bees across the world, posing a huge threat to agriculture and food security, given that bees pollinate more than 70% of all crops.22
Be Careful About Indirect Exposure
Pesticides tend to sneak into our bodies through our diets when we eat veggies and fruits with high amounts of pesticide residue. Consider buying organic if you’re worried about pesticide residue in your food. Organic fruits and veggies are also grown with some pesticides, but not quite as much.23 Also consider eating low-pesticide foods that have protective coverings – say, avocados, oranges, pineapples, mangoes, and onions.24
No matter what kind of produce you buy, always make sure to wash them thoroughly before storing or cooking. The FDA recommends scrubbing hard produce with a vegetable brush and rubbing softer fruits and veggies gently under running water. Also be sure to wash your produce before peeling them, and when washing veggies like cabbage or lettuce, discard the outermost layer.25
Use Pesticides Safely
There a number of things you can do to limit your exposure to pesticides and the toxins they contain:
- Wear long pants, long-sleeve shirts, and closed toed shoes when working with pesticides. Protective eye goggles are a great idea too.
- Always keep non-absorbent clean-up material ready and always wear gloves and a mask.
- Read and follow directions on the product label carefully.
- Make sure you mix pesticides outdoors if possible and, if not, in a well-ventilated area.
- Mix only as much pesticide as you need. That way, you don’t have to worry about storing or disposing of it.
- Keep children, pregnant women, and pets away when mixing or applying pesticides.
- If using pesticides indoors, keep food covered.
- Always wash your hands thoroughly after using pesticides, especially before eating, drinking, or going to the bathroom.
- Do not leave pesticides unattended.26
|↑1||What is a Pesticide?. US Environmental Protection Agency.|
|↑2, ↑4, ↑5, ↑6, ↑10||Potential Health Effects of Pesticides. The Pennsylvania State University.|
|↑3||Pesticide poisoning affects children at higher rate – UN agencies. UN News Centre.|
|↑7, ↑14||Hu, Ruifa, Xusheng Huang, Jikun Huang, Yifan Li, Chao Zhang, Yanhong Yin, Zhaohui Chen, Yanhong Jin, Jinyang Cai, and Fang Cui. “Long-and short-term health effects of pesticide exposure: a cohort study from China.” PloS one 10, no. 6 (2015): e0128766.|
|↑8||Impacts of pesticides on health. Pesticide Action Network UK.|
|↑9, ↑22||Pesticides are “global human rights concern”, say UN experts urging new treaty. Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.|
|↑11, ↑12||Impacts of pesticides on health. Pesticide Action Network UK.|
|↑13||Effects of Pesticides on Human Health. Toxipedia.|
|↑15||Pesticides in produce linked with reduced fertility in women. Harvard Health.|
|↑16||Pesticides And Pregnancy. American Pregnancy Association.|
|↑17, ↑20||Pesticides. The World Health Organization.|
|↑18||Pesticides. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.|
|↑19||National Pesticide Information Center. National Pesticide Information Center.|
|↑21||Pesticide Exposure in Children. American Academy of Pediatrics.|
|↑23||Organic and Conventionally Grown Food. National Pesticide Information Center.|
|↑24||Pesticides in produce linked with reduced fertility in women.|
|↑25||7 Tips for Cleaning Fruits, Vegetables. US Food and Drug Administration.|
|↑26||Safe Use Practices for Pesticides. National Pesticide Information Center.|