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PESTICIDES AND HUMAN HEALTH

Any excerpts reproduced from this page should be cited as follows: Pesticide-Free Cambridge, 'Pesticides and Human Health', https://www.pesticidefreecambridge.org/pesticides-and-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.  

FURTHER READING

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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)