by James Meikle, The Guardian
Government cancer advisers have for the first time said pesticides,
particularly weedkillers, might cause prostate cancer and want
better monitoring of their use, the Guardian has learned.
There must be more information on occupational exposure of farmers
and farmworkers to agricultural chemicals, said the committee
on carcinogenicity in a statement that has encouraged environmental
Friends of the Earth also pointed out that while workers wore
protective gear for spraying, many who lived near fields being
treated, including children, did not. There was far too little
information on this risk too, it said.
The Department of Health's advisory committee has been reviewing
reasons for a huge increase in prostate cancer over the past 20
years. Farm working was the only possible job-related link to
prostate cancer to which any endorsement was given.
Experts on pesticide safety, reporting to Defra, the environment
department, will consider what steps to take at a meeting on Thursday.
But officials told the Guardian that it would be extremely difficult
to estimate exposure to the chemicals.
Prostate cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed in men in
Britain with 27,000 new cases a year, with a lifetime risk of
one in 13. There are nearly 9,950 deaths but survival rates are
In a statement on its website, the committee discounted large-scale
environmental factors since a study of geographical incidence
of prostate cancer in the UK found no significant differences.
But the committee concluded, after studying a number of research
papers, including in the US and Canada, "there was some evidence
to suggest an association between farmers and farm workers, exposure
to pesticides and increased risk of prostate cancer".
While not suggesting any new government research into the issue,
members said the "potential association" should be kept
under review and commented "on the need for improved measures
of exposure to pesticides and particularly herbicides".
The government's code of practice at present tells those responsible
for the spraying of pesticides that monitoring exposure "will
not usually be necessary" if the pesticide is used to manufacturers'
instructions and proper control measures are applied.
Employers must put their workers under surveillance if there
is a danger that an identifiable disease or risk to health may
be related to exposure to chemicals and valid techniques existed
for detecting indications of the disease.
The guidance from the Pesticide Safety Directorate, part of Defra,
also suggests that in practice the pesticides to which these are
most likely to apply are those that can cause skin disorders and
The directorate said total pesticides used in Britain fell from
34.5m kg in 1990 to 30.6m kg in 2003. Larger areas were sprayed
but in a more diluted form. Weedkillers accounted for just over
a quarter of all pesticide use.
Sandra Bell, pesticides campaigner for Friends of the Earth,
said: "This is one of those areas where government up to
now has said we have seen no evidence on which to take action.
It is really helpful in backing up concerns we have been raising
for a number of years."
But the National Farmers' Union was sceptical, saying the issue
had not been raised by any members.
A Defra spokesman said any new evidence would be carefully considered.
But it was difficult to determine whether individuals were exposed
to risk and to what levels. "This is particularly difficult
where it may be necessary to go back over several years or decades
as in the case of cancers."