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Follow up on some of the key themes relating to pesticides and human-environmental interactions mentioned in this website listed under the following sections.  

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RACHEL CARSON AND ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH

Many of the quotes reproduced throughout this site come from or were inspired by Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. The book, a major landmark for the global environmentalism movement, was written in 1962 but after over half a century of inaction and collective amnesia, and as we continue to destroy nature at an alarmingly accelerated rate, its message is more relevant than ever.


It is only now that ecological public health theorists have started to problematise the medical research community's  failure to engage in a timely manner with Carson’s pioneering arguments regarding the negative human and environmental health impact of synthetic biocides and related chemicals, as industry’s quest for profit widens further the dislocation between the human and ‘natural’ worlds . Although it is now widely accepted that synthetic chemicals are impacting on both human health and global climate-change in unprecedented ways as reflected in the United Nations’ Environment Programme, serious thought is needed about why it has taken over 60 years for Carson’s views to be taken on board by mainstream science, so that the remaining obstacles towards effecting remedial action might finally be tackled.

It is important to note that similar concerns in the past about various emerging threats from lead poisoning, to cigarette smoke, to climate change itself, were initially dismissed as conspiracy by both industry and the public alike. Although the emerging ecological paradigm of medicine has demonstrated the environmental basis of various stigmatised and hitherto poorly understood chronic illnesses, many of them directly related to pesticide exposure, translating such findings into clinical, legislative and social contexts is a frustratingly slow process, just as the now-established germ theory was originally met with disbelief and hostility. There are multiple economic and political issues at stake here. And against the marked prioritisation of scientific and technological responses to environmental challenges, we should acknowledge also that modern medicine, like environmentalism, is part of a belief system that by regarding humans as disconnected from nature has allowed for the rejection of well-reasoned warnings about the health risks presented by pesticides.  

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"Human activity, including economic activity, is now directly and indirectly driving changes to the ecosystems and planetary processes on which we rely for health, well-being, and existence. For too long, human beings have lived, moved, consumed, and pursued health and well-being as if humankind is distinct and separate from nature rather than integral to it. The consequences of this disconnect for the natural world were graphically expressed by Rachel Carson in the 1960s …. However, developments in science and technology now reveal the true extent of the crisis, its accelerating nature, and its consequences both now and in the medium and longer term."

George Morris and Patrick Saunders. The Environment in Health and Well-being (2017, 16).

PESTICIDES AND HUMAN HEALTH

There is widespread recognition of the negative health impact of both agricultural and non-agricultural pesticides use and their link with a range of human illnesses, including cancers, chronic neurological conditions such as ME/CFS, endocrine disruption and DNA alteration, as well as autism and learning difficulties in children; mothers with impaired detoxification systems have been shown to be more likely to have autistic children

The ability to metabolise pesticides varies significantly across the human population according to individual genetics. Those who have already been injured by pesticides or other environmental pollutants are likely to be more vulnerable to ongoing poor air quality and are also likely to be more sensitive to low levels of pesticides due to impaired or damaged xenobiotic detoxifying enzymes such as Cytochrome P450s, Gluthathione-s-transferase and Cholinesterase.  

Glyphosate-based herbicides have attracted much media attention in recent years following several high-profile legal cases that have highlighted their carcinogenic properties. However, glyphosates also have numerous other well-documented negative health impacts, and moreover, form just one of a much bigger class of pesticides that includes also synthetic insecticides which are considerably more toxic and environmentally persistent.  


Many household insecticides despite their reputation as being less toxic than their commercial counterparts, contain carbamates, powerful nerve agents implicated in chemical warfare.  Like the Organophosphates that Rachel Carson wrote so forcefully about, such products carry warnings regarding their acetylcholinesterase-inhibiting properties. Cholinesterase inhibitors have negative health impacts on the human population at large, often with very serious consequences as illustrated by the recent poisoning of the Russian opposition leader, Alexei Navalny.  But for individuals with cholinesterase enzyme deficiencies, exposure to even very low levels can cause debilitating and long-lasting symptoms.


Pyrethroid-based insecticides are often marketed as being comparatively less toxic than carbamates. However, these too are implicated in a wide range of illnesses including cancer and neurological conditions.

Vulnerable members of society including children, the disabled, chronically ill, and economically disadvantaged groups are particularly susceptible to the ill effects of environmental pollution.  Such a situation calls for an intersectional approach to environmental activism that takes into account disability, gender, class and ethnicity-based parameters of health and environmental inequality.  

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"[Cholinesterase inhibiting pesticides] act on the living organism in a peculiar way. They have the ability to destroy enzymes that perform necessary functions in the body. Their target is the nervous system, whether the victim is an insect or a warm-blooded animal. Under normal conditions, an impulse passes from nerve to nerve with the aid of a chemical transmitter called acetylcholine, a substance that performs an essential function and then disappears…. A protective enzyme called cholinesterase is at hand to destroy the transmitting chemical once it is no longer needed.… But on contact with [cholinesterase inhibitors], the protective enzyme is destroyed, and as the quantity of the enzyme is reduced that of the transmitting chemical builds up.…Repeated exposures may lower the cholinesterase level until an individual reaches the brink of acute poisoning, a brink over which he may be pushed by a very small additional exposure."

Rachel Carson, Silent Spring  (1962)

ECOLOGICAL PUBLIC HEALTH, EPIGENETICS AND EXPOSOME THEORY

Our campaign is informed by Ecological Public Health,  epigenetics and exposome research strands that reveal how our synthetically altered environment is changing human and non-human animals at an intergenerational level through epigenetic, genetic and endocrine disruption, and that any healing of the human body needs to go hand in hand with healing of the environment. The exposome model, described as an ‘integrated science of nurture’ that helps to ‘fulfil the promises of the Human Genome Project’ demonstrates the ‘imbalance in the nature nurture interaction’ and the ‘interactions between our genes and our environment that determine health and disease’.  Its emphasis on the ‘environmental influences and associated biological responses throughout the lifespan, including exposures from the environment, diet, behavior, and endogenous processes’  intersects closely with the focus of the  United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, as well as related medical initiatives aimed at tackling the health fallout of global environmental and climate change events,  Planetary Health, and One Health.  

Significantly, the current global pandemic, Covid-19, has been described as having arisen in part from a  failure to respond to the message of the Ecological Public Health model and, in particular, entrenched human-environmental imbalances that include the erosion of nature and biodiversity. Moreover, in order to fulfil the aims of a balanced Planetary Health agenda, it is understood that ‘a total rethink of society, the economy, and our stewardship of the natural environment’ is going to be necessary.

Crucially, these approaches have shattered old nature:nurture divisions, by emphasizing the ‘permeability between humans and their environment’ as reflected in the ways that both interact to alter gene and endocrinal behaviour. The western medical view of the self-contained human body impervious to its surroundings is now seen as ‘distressingly porous and vulnerable’ to both the physical and socio-cultural landscape in which humans live.

Both the epigenetic and exposome models have obvious relevance for environmental activism and for bringing ‘green’ agendas into mainstream political activism. This is because they demonstrate most effectively that injury to the environment, of which climate change is but one outcome, can no longer be dismissed as something ‘out there’ that does not impact on human wellbeing unless one is affected directly by extreme weather or environmental events. Conversely, as we alter our environment, so too are our bodies being changed and damaged through endocrinal and epigenetic alteration. Such an understanding is inherent to Pesticide-Free Cambridge’s quest to get toxic pollutants removed from our environment.  

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"The singular and self-contained body of the early 20th century came, by the
end of that century to seem distressingly porous and vulnerable to the modern landscape."

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ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES AND ANTHROPOCENE RESEARCH

Environmental humanities and Anthropocene oriented research on diachronic human-environmental interactions are useful for highlighting how both technological and behavioural responses to extreme climatic events or environmental challenges in the past might inform solutions in the present and future.  Such work also highlights the importance of deeply engrained mindsets and attitudes towards our place in the environment, many of them rooted in historically specific religious or cultural worldviews; some social scientists refer to modern environmentalism as a secular religion!

Historical accounts of community-level responses to socio-environmental and human health challenges are particularly instructive for modern environmental activism, especially given recognition by public health theorists of the role of community responsibility in tackling current health crises. With the recent rise in public, and especially student-led climate-change protests  calling for improved government-level environmental policy, we should not lose sight of the potential for local community action and shifts in attitudes and behaviours to influence bigger global transformations.

In short, there is little point in campaigning for governmental action, if one’s immediate living, working, or educational environments are not in order. This means living by example, through individual and collective adherence to ecologically minded practices that reflect the inherent porosity of the human-environment encounter. In addition to technological solutions such as ‘green’ chemistry and sustainable agriculture, more thought needs to be given to the power of community action and how deeply engrained behaviours and mindsets that have long since shaped our relationship to the natural world might be shifted to create a better world for all.

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NATURE AND WELLBEING

Public Health discourse on ecotherapy, ‘nature’ and wellbeing, and ‘nature’, health and the built environment have highlighted the importance of access to nature for both physical and mental health.  Not only do herbicide treated verges contribute to our polluted planet and bodies, but they are also ugly, and living in an ugly environment does little for our mental health and wellbeing.  


Access to biodiverse nature especially during childhood play has also been shown in recent research to impact on immunity  and microbiota health. Although the above-cited research does not consider environmental pollutants as key variables here in the differing health outcomes children playing in green versus paved-over recreation spaces,  it is important to note that pesticides that are so commonly used in such areas are themselves major contributing factors to gut microflora dysbiosis and related illness. 

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AIR POLLUTION AND HUMAN HEALTH

Coming soon

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WEED-CONTROL, GREEN SPACES AND VERGE MANAGEMENT

There is widespread concern about the negative impact of both agricultural and non-agricultural pesticide use on declining insect populations and the consequent loss of biodiversity. There is growing awareness of the important contribution of wild grasses and flowers in roadside verges to biodiversity, human health and wellbeing. Positive example are set by cities such as Zurich that have embraced the visual and biodiverse beauty of their wild verges that have also been used after the autumn cut, as nutrient-rich feed for cattle.


In the UK, Rotherham Council’s 8-mile ring road wildflower meadow saved up to £25,000 in mowing costs and improved biodiversity, while also being popular with residents. Sheffield’s Living Highways Project shows how councils can work together with contractors to deliver a verge management plan that boosts wildlife.  


In Cambridge, On the Verge has made great advances with encouraging the planting of wildflower meadows in the city parks.  Cambridge City Council took the positive decision in 2019 to stop applying glyphosate-based herbicides in the city’s parks, open spaces and children’s playgrounds, and this has also had a positive impact on the biodiversity and appearance of these areas.  A significant part of our campaign is to get these improvements extended to Cambridge’s valuable verges to increase biodiversity, beauty and health, but also to stop the blanket spraying of herbicides on its pavements and streets. 

Some of the Cambridge colleges have taken steps towards replacing their sterile lawns heavily dependent on synthetic herbicides and fertilizers with wildflower meadows or to implement organic gardening approaches. Positive examples include King’s College wildflower meadow, Jesus College Nature Trail, and Fitzwilliam College's organic garden

There is an urgent need however to continue questioning the damaging urbane expectations of tidiness, order and control of ‘nature’ that lawns, both public and private, have come to represent, as argued so eloquently in Robbins’ 2007 book, Lawn People.  Such values are in stark contradiction with recent research on the impact of biodiverse and natural spaces on human immune systems and mental health.  

FURTHER READING

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PESTICIDE-INJURY SUPPORT

 While acute pesticide injury is usually treated in toxicology units, the long term after effects of both acute and chronic pesticide injury can be very complex, varied and far reaching. Many people continue to suffer symptoms long after the primary exposure, and due to damage to detoxification enzymes and to DNA, can be left with severely reduced capacity to metabolise low levels of pesticides. Living with hypersensitivities to pesticides in a world where such chemicals are increasingly ubiquitous can make life very difficult for sufferers, especially since the lifelong and often intergenerational impacts of pesticide exposure are poorly incorporated into the teaching within medical schools of traditional toxicology.  Some of these major gaps are being addressed more recently in new research directions encompassed by Exposome and Ecological Public Health discourse  (see above), but  direct clinical care remains scant and inadequate. The following charities and organisations offer important sources of information and support. 

ME/CFS. Many people with ME can link the onset of their illness to a major environmental exposure, often involving pesticides. For support, see the following charities. 

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