If you thought that the use of pesticides had declined in recent years, think again: despite all the fine promises, and the fact that evidence of their toxicity continues to accumulate, pesticide use is at historic levels, with almost all European countries employing more and more of these noxious chemicals.
Spraying 78,000 tons on their fields, it’s Spain who are champions of Europe when it comes to pesticide use, just ahead of France (75,000 tons), Italy (64,000 tons), Germany (46,000 tons) and Poland (23 000 tons).
Never before has Europe used so many of these toxic substances on its soil and the consequences are starting to be dramatic.
Firstly, for the environment: every year, Europe spends millions of euros making our increasingly contaminated water drinkable (1). Pesticides build up in water tables and disrupt every stage of the life cycle (2), contributing hugely to the sixth mass extinction currently affecting the planet. There are still concentrations in our waterways of atrazine, a substance banned since 2003, and it’s estimated that it will take almost 50 years before it disappears completely (3) ...
Secondly, for our health, which is feeling the full force. It was long believed that chronic exposure to pesticides, through the food we eat and the water we drink, had no effect, but today, common sense is prevailing.
No study has yet been able to clearly determine the impact on health of such exposure over the long term, especially given the synergistic effects of all the pesticides with which we are confronted.
Firstly, because there’s a significant time-lag between exposure and the appearance of disease (4), as was the case with tobacco and asbestos. Secondly, because such studies are costly to run and are of no benefit to any company. We’re also witnessing the influencing strategies of the agro-food lobbyists (5) which are all too familiar but which unfortunately still work …
We therefore have to rely on a multitude of shorter duration studies to try and predict what the long-term effects might be. It is on this basis that the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, alerted by the increasing number of afflictions affecting farmers, has been able to classify a number of herbicides and insecticides used abundantly in both Europe and the United States as probable (group 2A) or possible (group 2B) carcinogens (6).
One of the mechanisms of action that could well account for this carcinogenicity involves oxidative stress: once in the body, it’s possible that pesticides boost production of reactive oxygen species (7) which can denature cell DNA while at the same time reducing the antioxidant defences that help neutralise them (8). It’s this same imbalance which may be responsible for now well-identified problems of pregnancy (9) such as embryo mortality, miscarriage, fœtal death and malformations, premature birth (incidence of which is rising), and low birthweight (10-11), as well as the development of cancer (12) and neurodegenerative diseases (13).
And farmers are not the only people affected! Carcinogenic effects can also occur following the ingestion of pesticides via contaminated food. Here again, numerous studies have confirmed this food/water-borne transmission: in both Europe and the United States, worrying levels of glyphosate (the pesticide used abundantly by farmers but due to be banned in Europe in 2023) as well as some of its metabolites have been found in the urine of people who do not even handle this product on a daily basis (14). Scientists actually compared levels of this pesticide in around 100 people between 1996 and 2016 and guess what – they saw a rise of around 1200% over this 20 year period (15) (from 0.024 μg/L to 0.314 μg/L).
Animal studies have also identified chronic exposure to very low levels of glyphosate as leading to significant liver damage, increasing the risk of non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), incidence of which, whether by chance or not, is rising alarmingly in humans. Little is known, however, about long-term exposure of the skin, the potential risks of which are greatest for those living close to spraying areas. But here again, the picture looks very much like that of asbestos (17) …
Of course the pesticides recently classified as carcinogens may be banned in the coming years (this will be the case with glyphosate in Europe), but there’s every reason to believe they’ll be replaced by other products, the toxicity of which will have to be demonstrated anew …
The classic route followed by a pesticide is unfortunately:
All the evidence suggests we need to act quickly before an ecological or health crisis forces us to reconsider.
At a society level, we urgently need to start making bold choices: the real power to change things lies in our hands, not in those of the big players. The more we choose to buy organic food, the more arable and livestock farmers will be persuaded to abandon an abnormal and toxic system and to switch to healthy and sustainable farming methods. It’s also the best way to minimise our ingestion of pesticides …
At an individual level, we also urgently need to reduce our risk of developing cancer and all the diseases associated with oxidative stress. There are two compatible and widely-documented ways of doing this: increase our consumption of fruit and vegetables (organic), and take antioxidant supplements.
In vitro and in vivo studies show that antioxidant nutrients can reduce the damage caused by the reactive species in pesticides. They provide real protection from abnormally high levels of oxidative stress (18), which happens in the case of chronic exposure to pesticides (19) as well as chronic stress, bad diet or poor quality sleep. We have identified several antioxidant supplements shown to be effective in studies specifically studying oxidative stress related to environmental pollutants:
Some formulations such as AntiOxidant Synergy contain several of these antioxidants as well as other recognised natural compounds such as grape seed extract or epigallocatechin gallate from green tea. These formulations are not designed just to counter the harm done by pesticides, but also aim to reduce reactive oxygen species generated by stress, pollution, smoking, poor diet, alcohol, and the sun’s UV rays, etc.
“We’re increasingly exposed to pesticides but most people are unaware that they are consuming them through their diet…“, lamented Paul Mills recently, one of the researchers studying the levels of glyphosate in our bodies. At least we can reassure him that you’re now aware of the problem …
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