Transition to an Organic Nation
Many pesticides pose cancer risks to those who use them. They also pose risks to vulnerable individuals such as children and pregnant women, and to those with a health condition such as asthma. There is no need for toxic chemicals on our lawns. We are also better off eating organic food and supporting organic agriculture.
What are “Pesticides”?
Pesticides may be used to kill or otherwise control weeds (herbicides), insects (insecticides) and other “pests” such as moss, fungi, algae, rodents, bacteria, etc. As well as agricultural, landscaping and insect sprays, pesticides are ingredients in traps, baits, and products for water treatment (e.g. algaecides), cleaning (e.g. antibacterial chemicals), repelling insects, and lice and flea treatments.
Chemical pesticides are the only products deliberately designed to be toxic, and to be released in the environment. Unlike a fly swatter (also a pest-control device), chemical pesticides usually affect many species, including unintended targets. Typically only a miniscule fraction of the chemical reaches the intended target, and far more may reach unintended targets. In a systematic review by the Ontario College of Family Physicians, many common pesticides were linked to cancers in humans (1); a more recent review by the Ontario College of Family Physicians (2) did not re-examine cancer, but found greater cause for concern otherwise.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Prevent Cancer Now reviewed which fruits and vegetables tend to be most contaminated by pesticides. Put these at the top of your list to buy organic!
Fruits and Vegetables to Choose Organic
These foods have the most (and the most toxic) pesticide residues:
Not all farmers who use organic, sustainable practices go through the accreditation process. Get to know and support your local farmers who produce great food in your area.
A rigorous process and verification governed by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is followed to certify that a farm is producing organic foods. Certification services are provided by a variety of bodies in Canada, the USA, Europe, and elsewhere. Organic standards and issues have been promoted by the Canadian Organic Growers. Only the term “organic,” which must be accompanied by the label of the certification body, is meaningful. “Natural,” “green,” etc. are backed by no standards, and are commonly known as “greenwashing.”
How we chose foods to buy organic
The lists above are based on data from the US Food and Drug Administration, after the food was prepared for eating, such as typical washing or peeling. Our list includes fruits and vegetables with the highest frequencies and residues of pesticides, as assessed by the US Environmental Working Group, (3), with an overlay of the toxicity of the pesticides, as analyzed by the Consumers Union (4).
When checks and balances associated with nature’s biodiversity are put aside to grow a single species of plants, be it a lawn or a food crop, then weeds pop up, diseases catch hold, and specialized insects multiply. Organic methods aim to strengthen crop plants and to push the ecosystem towards desired species.
PCN supports using only the least-toxic pest control strategies and products, as in organic farming, for a number of reasons that relate to human and environmental health, as well as sustainability of agriculture (5).
- A large 2014 study concluded that organic foods contain higher levels of nutrients such as antioxidants, less pesticides, and less of the toxic metal cadmium in grains (6).
- Pesticides used in industrial agriculture can contaminate foods and the environment. Many of these chemicals promote cancer (and other chronic diseases), through a range of mechanisms, including inflammation and hormone (endocrine) disruption (7).
- Farm workers and those living close to farms that are sprayed with these pesticides have the most to gain from foregoing pesticides in the fields. Farm workers have higher risks of cancers, including leukemia, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, multiple myeloma, and soft tissue sarcoma, as well as cancers of the skin, lip, stomach, brain, and prostate (8). In an Ontario study, women farm workers were almost three times more likely to develop breast cancer than non-farm workers (9). Previous work on a farm increased the odds of developing breast cancer with subsequent workplace exposures (10). Ongoing research continues to show higher rates of multiple myeloma (11) and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (12) with multiple pesticide exposures. Pre-conception maternal or paternal exposure to pesticides increases the chance of childhood leukemia (13,14).
- Organic foods are free of the antibiotics used in industrial agricultural feed as “growth enhancers.” Antibiotic use results in environmental and human exposures to these toxicants, and also promotes antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria, that are now impacting human health.
- Choosing organic means that you are avoiding genetically modified foods, with foreign proteins such as insecticide chemicals grown within the plant, and remnants of high doses of herbicides.
- Intensive agriculture requires various soil supplements. Use of phosphate fertilizer (that often contains toxins such as arsenic, lead and cadmium) along with glyphosate containing herbicide (a “chelator” that can bind with and mobilize metals) has resulted in foods high in toxic elements. In a Sri Lankan study the immediate effect was kidney disease, but these elements also cause cancer over the longer term (15).
- A 2013 review proposed a previously unconsidered mechanism of harm from glyphosate (16). Although glyposate was deemed safe because it targets an enzyme not produced by humans, gut bacteria, that aid in digestion and the immune system, rely on this enzyme. Shifts in gut bacterial health are linked to cancers.
- GMO proteins and related herbicide residues have been found in blood of women and newborns (17).
- Children’s health throughout life is affected by pesticides (18), but children’s pesticide residues fall when they are fed only organic foods (19).
- Many organic foods, including less common “heritage” foods, are highly nutritious (20), and taste great!
Environmental Health and Sustainability:
- Organic farming uses methods to preserve topsoil quality and quantity, and biodiversity, as well as seeds uniquely adapted to the local soil and climate. Long term sustainability of farming depends upon these approaches (21).
- Organic farms are typically more diversified and resilient in the face of less predictable weather. Worldwatch Institute analyses (22) have found that the answer to world hunger will not lie in massive agricultural enterprises; it will lie in diversified farms with modest if any chemical inputs, using seeds that are uniquely adapted to the local soils and climate, as well as practices that preserve clean water.
- Comparison of energy inputs is complex because organic agricultural methods are quite different from large, industrial agricultural practices (23). Nevertheless, reviews indicate lower overall energy use / greenhouse gas output for organic farming, in part because fertilizers and pesticides are made and spread using fossil fuels (24).
GMOs contain genetic material from another species, often one that is very foreign. Imagine, bacterial genes to kill insects that attack corn and cotton, or a fish gene in tomatoes to improve cold tolerance. The additional DNA causes the GMO to manufacture proteins for specific purposes; proteins that have never before been associated with that plant.
Corn, canola, soy and white sugar beet are the most common GM crops. Despite unresolved scientific questions and diverse serious concerns, herbicide-resistant alfalfa (the first insect-pollinated, perennial GMO, that will quickly spread genetic contamination), a non-browning apple (also with genes that will not be contained), and fast-growing salmon (the first commercialized GM animal) are in the lineup for approvals and rollout, as reported by the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN).
Insect resistant GMOs produce proteins using bacterial genes. Bacillus thuringiensis bacteria are important for organic farming, where they are sprayed to infect insects and to release intestinal toxins. In GMOs, these toxins are produced throughout the plant, sickening insects that eat the plant. For example, corn was modified to resist earworm and rootworm, and cotton to resist bollworm. Over the short term pesticide use decreased, but with continuous exposure pests adapted to the toxins, necessitating more elaborate (bio)technologies, resurgence of the insecticide use this technology was meant to stop, and undermining of an important tool for organic farmers.
Herbicide resistant GMOs are developed by manufacturers of herbicides. The plants produce enzymes to detoxify weedkillers, so that high doses can be used to kill all plants other than the GMO. The original herbicide used was glyphosate, in Monsanto’s commercial product “Roundup.” Years of “Roundup-ready” crops being doused with ever-increasing quantities of the herbicide unfortunately led to “Roundup-ready” super-weeds also becoming very resistant to the herbicide, not only undoing the GMO advantage, but leaving fields infested with very vigorous weeds.
The pests are getting stronger. An original selling point for GMOs was that glyphosate could replace phenoxy herbicides for use on cereals such as corn. Glyphosate was presumed to be relatively non-toxic, while phenoxy herbicides such as 2,4-D had gained notoriety for dioxin contamination (typified by Agent Orange), and association with various harms including cancer (25). According to CBAN, an escalating biological arms race, seed companies are now seeking approvals to sell GMOs that produce multiple microbial insecticides, and that are resistant to both glyphosate and phenoxy herbicides such as 2,4-D.
Human health and GMOs
The direct human health effects of GMOs are sparsely researched, because GMOs have been considered “substantially equivalent” to non-GMO versions. Foods containing GMOs are not labelled, so research specifically comparing GMO-free versus regular diets is impossible. Nevertheless, residues of pesticides associated with genetically modified foods were found in women’s blood and cord blood of newborns, in a Québec study (17). The American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) cites animal research findings of immune changes, inflammation and organ damage with GMO foods, all of which may precede cancer (26). The AAEM calls for:
- physician, patient and public education;
- physicians to consider the possibility that GMOs are affecting patient health;
- cases of trials of GMO-free diets being documented;
- epidemiological studies;
- a moratorium on GMO foods until safety is independently established; and
- labelling of GMO foods.
Long term pesticide and GM corn exposure was bad news for rats, and worse news for scientific integrity
The only peer-reviewed long-term (2 year) animal feeding study of GMO corn and/or Roundup reported increased tumours and organ damage related to the products (27). A previous Monsanto employee then joined the Food and Chemical Toxicology editorial board, and this study was subsequently retracted, for the unusual reason that the results were inconclusive (Science is a process of building upon others’ results and is seldom conclusive; moreover, efforts are being made to ensure that equivocal and negative studies are published, to reduce bias in the body of literature). An enormous backlash among the scientific community ensued, with letters signed by thousands of scientists (e.g. here and here), including a protest letter from a past editor of the journal. Hundreds of scientists also dispute industry claims that GMO foods are “known” to be safe. Now the study has been republished, along with all of the raw data, a call for the pesticide companies to similarly publish their data, and a history and analysis of “conflicts of interests, confidentiality and censorship in health risk assessment” (28,29).
When there is no health benefit, and a certain risk to human health (especially child health), only least-toxic pest control strategies should be used or permitted in landscaping. The most obvious example is for landscaping in the urban and suburban environment, sometimes called “cosmetic,” “ornamental” or “non-essential” uses of pesticides.
Across Canada, decades of work to reduce pesticide exposures led to special rules for parks and schoolyards, and even towns. Canada’s first municipal pesticide law, in Hudson Quebec, was challenged by the pesticide industry. After a decade wending through the courts, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the right of municipalities to pass laws in good faith, to reduce health risks for their constituents (30). Surmounting this legal hurdle led to the Pesticide Code in Quebec, Halifax’s pesticide law, a flurry of other bylaws across the country, and eventually Canada’s best “cosmetic” pesticide law across Ontario. In 2014, Manitoba announced pesticide restrictions for areas that may be frequented by children, such as lawns and premises of schools, daycares, etc. The publication, Pesticide Free? Oui! (31) summarizes the history, and strengths and weaknesses of various approaches. The authors underscore the importance of:
- extending a ban to all aspects of landscaping in public and private areas;
- structuring the ban in reference to a credible list of permitted lower-risk ingredients and
prohibiting the sale and use of all other pesticides;
- providing a mechanism to classify new active ingredients; and
- requiring a permit for pesticide use under exemptions–including golf courses that are currently excluded from the restrictions in all provinces. An exemption should only be permitted if it is necessary to protect public health and safety.
Pesticide Bylaw Toolkit
If your area does not restrict pesticides used for landscaping yet, take a lead!
- Use least-toxic practices yourself such as hand-pulling weeds, setting your mower high, over-seeding, infrequent watering, and landscaping with alternative groundcovers and less grass (see links for organic landscaping tips).
- Check labels on gardening products, ask questions, talk to your friends, neighbours and politicians, write a letter to politicians and your local newspaper.
- Link up with others working to reduce toxic chemicals on the landscape (see here
for groups working on pesticides).
- Prevent Cancer Now’s submissions regarding pesticides can be found here.
The Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) regulates products that destroy or control pests, under the Pest Control Products Act [PCPA 2002] (32). A “pest” is an organism that is “harmful, noxious or troublesome.”
The PMRA and the health and medical community reach opposite conclusions regarding pesticides and human health. The doctors, who urge precautionary minimization of exposures, rely upon the real-life human epidemiological research rather than the confidential industry-produced animal test data relied upon by the PMRA. The PMRA conducts virtually no testing itself. Rather, it conducts a paper audit of data submitted by the pesticide manufacturers. Unfortunately, its assessment of human risk is flawed, for the following reasons:
- Animal testing in labs is of limited relevance for people. Testing determines the maximum dose that does not make an animal (usually a rodent such as a rat or mouse) seriously ill. Rodents are very different from humans, in that they have enzymes that help them metabolize poisons. Humans do not have the same enzymes and, of course, tests are not conducted on humans. That would be unethical.
Also, tests do not generally cover the animal’s lifespan. In humans, exposures that may cause no symptoms in the mother can cause life-long harm to her unborn child, and childhood exposures can cause symptoms in adulthood. Some effects may be passed through generations due to changes in gene expression, called epigenetic effects.
- Tests do not address low dose or cumulative effects, as they build up with multiple exposures and over time. In fact, the regulatory system actually dissuades companies from doing low dose, environmentally relevant testing, because any positive findings would preclude the product being registered. This highlights the need for independent research. Some health effects occur at doses commonly encountered in the environment, effects that may predispose people to cancers as well as other major chronic diseases. One important mechanism by which this happens is endocrine disruption.
- No testing is done on endocrine disruption – one mechanism behind many pesticides’ chronic toxicities. Many pesticides disrupt the endocrine, or hormone systems (33). Hormones orchestrate every step of development from gestation through the entire lifespan. They act at extremely low concentrations in the body, and endocrine disrupting chemicals can have different, even opposite effects at higher doses (34). Alterations to hormone levels during critical windows of development can cause permanent changes to children’s lives, affecting their intelligence and behaviour, and making them more susceptible to infections, asthma, obesity, diabetes, reproductive failure, cardiovascular disease and cancers. One 2011 study reviewed endocrine effects of 91 pesticides (33). A second study confirmed previously known androgen effects of some pesticides (35), while among previously untested pesticides nine were anti-androgenic and seven were androgenic. The US Environmental Protection Agency and the European Union are screening pesticides for effects related to actions of estrogen, androgen, thyroid and other hormones. A 2012 review of 845 scientific papers showed evidence that endocrine-disrupting chemicals have adverse health impacts at very low doses in animals and humans (36). Indeed, the American Chemical Society has acknowledged in a Position Statement that omitting low dose testing undermines the validity of regulatory toxicological testing (37).
- Only active ingredients are tested. Additives or “formulants” are used in pesticide products to slow metabolism of the active ingredient, and to improve spreading and absorption of the active ingredient. Additives can do the same when pesticides contact humans. A 2014 study found that 8 of 9 common commercial products tested were hundreds of times more toxic to human cells than just the pesticide active ingredient without formulants (38).
- Pesticides are not tested in combination. While we know that chemicals can act very differently in combination, only single chemicals are assessed in isolation.
- Pesticide registration is based on all directions being followed. Even if people make the effort to access the label fine print, instructions are extremely difficult to follow. For example: “avoid inhaling”; “avoid contact with the skin or eyes”; and “apply only when there are no children, pregnant women, elderly persons, pets or animals present”.
- The PMRA does not take into account medical literature. Real-life study of the effects of pesticides is difficult, and the PMRA dismisses all of this information as showing only correlation. It is of the opinion that it is virtually impossible to prove that pesticides cause harm to humans.
- Bassil KL, Vakil C, Sanborn M, Cole DC, Kaur JS, Kerr KJ. Cancer health effects of pesticides. Can Fam Physician. 2007 Oct;53(10):1704–11.
- Sandborn M, Bassil K, Vakil C, Kerr K, Ragan K. 2012 Systematic Review of Pesticides [Internet]. Ontario College of Family Physicians (OCFP); 2012 Apr. Available from: Available from: http://ocfp.on.ca/communications/archive/public-policy-documents#d14b9fba-3da2-4216-a446-980b43dbd82e
- Environmental Working Group. EWG’s 2012 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in ProduceTM [Internet]. 2012 [cited 2012 Nov 18]. Available from: http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/
- Consumers Union of US Inc. When to buy organic, Organic fruits and vegetables [Internet]. 2008 [cited 2013 Feb 22]. Available from: http://www.consumerreports.org/health/healthy-living/diet-nutrition/healthy-foods/organic-foods/organic-fruits-and-vegetables/go-organic.htm
- Jackson RJ, Minjares R, Naumoff KS, Shrimali BP, Martin LK. Agriculture Policy Is Health Policy. J Hunger Environ Nutr. 2009 Jul;4(3-4):393–408.
- Baranski M, Srednicka-Tober D, Volakakis N, Seal C, Sanderson R, Stewart GB, et al. Higher antioxidant and lower cadmium concentrations and lower incidence of pesticide residues in organically grown crops: a systematic literature review and meta-analyses. Br J Nutr. 2014 Jun 26;1–18.
- Cooper K, Marshall L, Vanderlinden L, Ursitti F. Early Exposures to Hazardous Pollutants/Chemicals and Associations with Chronic Disease – A Scoping Review [Internet]. Canadian Environmental Law Association, Ontario College of Family Physicians, and the Environmental Health Institute of Canada, for the Canadian Partnership for Children’s Health and Environment; 2011 Jun. Available from: http://www.healthyenvironmentforkids.ca/resources/EE-andCD-scoping-review
- US National Cancer Institute. Agricultural Health Study [Internet]. [cited 2013 Feb 25]. Available from: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/ahs
- Brophy JT, Keith MM, Gorey KM, Luginaah I, Laukkanen E, Hellyer D, et al. Occupation and Breast Cancer. Ann NY Acad Sci. 2006;1076(1):765–77.
- Brophy JT, Keith MM, Watterson A, Park R, Gilbertson M, Maticka-Tyndale E, et al. Breast cancer risk in relation to occupations with exposure to carcinogens and endocrine disruptors: a Canadian case–control study. Environmental Health. 2012 Nov 19;11(1):87.
- Kachuri L, Demers PA, Blair A, Spinelli JJ, Pahwa M, McLaughlin JR, et al. Multiple pesticide exposures and the risk of multiple myeloma in Canadian men. International Journal of Cancer. 2013;133(8):1846–58.
- Schinasi L, Leon ME. Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma and Occupational Exposure to Agricultural Pesticide Chemical Groups and Active Ingredients: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2014 Apr 23;11(4):4449–527.
- Wigle DT, Turner MC, Krewski D. A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of Childhood Leukemia and Parental Occupational Pesticide Exposure. Environ Health Perspect. 2009 May;117(10):1505–13.
- Bailey HD, Fritschi L, Infante-Rivard C, Glass DC, Miligi L, Dockerty JD, et al. Parental occupational pesticide exposure and the risk of childhood leukemia in the offspring: Findings from the childhood leukemia international consortium. Int J Cancer. 2014 Apr 1;n/a–n/a.
- Jayasumana C, Gunatilake S, Senanayake P. Glyphosate, Hard Water and Nephrotoxic Metals: Are They the Culprits Behind the Epidemic of Chronic Kidney Disease of Unknown Etiology in Sri Lanka? International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2014 Feb 20;11(2):2125–47.
- Samsel A, Seneff S. Glyphosate’s Suppression of Cytochrome P450 Enzymes and Amino Acid Biosynthesis by the Gut Microbiome: Pathways to Modern Diseases. Entropy. 2013 Apr 18;15(4):1416–63.
- Aris A, Leblanc S. Maternal and fetal exposure to pesticides associated to genetically modified foods in Eastern Townships of Quebec, Canada. Reprod Toxicol. 2011 May;31(4):528–33.
- Pesticide Action Network. A Generation in Jeopardy: How pesticides are undermining our children’s health & intelligence [Internet]. 2012. Available from: http://www.panna.org/publication/generation-in-jeopardy
- Smith-Spangler C, Brandeau ML, Hunter GE, Bavinger JC, Pearson M, Eschbach PJ, et al. Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives? A Systematic Review. Ann Intern Med. 2012 Sep 4;157(5):348–66.
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- Horrigan L, Lawrence RS, Walker P. How sustainable agriculture can address the environmental and human health harms of industrial agriculture. Environ Health Perspect. 2002 May;110(5):445–56.
- Worldwatch Institute. Sustainable Agriculture Program [Internet]. 2012 [cited 2013 Feb 3]. Available from: http://www.worldwatch.org/programs/agriculture
- Benbrook CM. Impacts of genetically engineered crops on pesticide use in the U.S. — the first sixteen years. Environmental Sciences Europe. 2012 Sep 28;24(1):24.
- Lynch DH, MacRae R, Martin RC. The Carbon and Global Warming Potential Impacts of Organic Farming: Does It Have a Significant Role in an Energy Constrained World? Sustainability. 2011 Jan 28;3(2):322–62.
- Sears M, Walker CR, van der Jagt RH, Claman P. Pesticide assessment: Protecting public health on the home turf. Paediatr Child Health. 2006 Apr;11(4):229–34.
- American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM). Genetically Modified Foods Position Paper [Internet]. 2009 [cited 2014 Mar 11]. Available from: http://www.aaemonline.org/gmopost.html
- Séralini G-E, Clair E, Mesnage R, Gress S, Defarge N, Malatesta M, et al. Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize. Food and Chemical Toxicology. 2012 Nov;50(11):4221–31.
- Séralini G-E, Clair E, Mesnage R, Gress S, Defarge N, Malatesta M, et al. Republished study: long-term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize. Environmental Sciences Europe. 2014 Jun 24;26(1):14.
- Séralini G-E, Mesnage R, Defarge N, Vendômois JS de. Conflicts of interests, confidentiality and censorship in health risk assessment: the example of an herbicide and a GMO. Environmental Sciences Europe. 2014 Jun 24;26(1):13.
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- David Suzuki Foundation, Équiterre. Pesticide Free? Oui! 2011 progress report: A comparison of provincial cosmetic pesticide bans [Internet]. 2011 May. Available from: http://www.healthyenvironmentforkids.ca/resources/pesticide-free-oui-2011-progress-report-comparison-provincial-cosmetic-pesticide-bans
- Government of Canada. Legislative Services Branch. Pest Control Products Act (S.C. 2002, c. 28) [Internet]. 2006 [cited 2014 Feb 27]. Available from: http://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/p-9.01/
- Mnif W, Hassine AIH, Bouaziz A, Bartegi A, Thomas O, Roig B. Effect of Endocrine Disruptor Pesticides: A Review. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2011 Jun;8(6):2265–303.
- Zoeller RT, Brown TR, Doan LL, Gore AC, Skakkebaek NE, Soto AM, et al. Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals and Public Health Protection: A Statement of Principles from The Endocrine Society. Endocrinology. 2012 Sep 1;153(9):4097–110.
- Orton F, Rosivatz E, Scholze M, Kortenkamp A. Widely Used Pesticides with Previously Unknown Endocrine Activity Revealed as in Vitro Antiandrogens. Environ Health Perspect. 2011 Jun;119(6):794–800.
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- Mesnage R, Defarge N, Vendô S de, Mois J, l, Sé, et al. Major Pesticides Are More Toxic to Human Cells Than Their Declared Active Principles. BioMed Research International [Internet]. 2014 Feb 26 [cited 2014 Feb 27];2014. Available from: http://www.hindawi.com/journals/bmri/2014/179691/abs/
LINKS to pesticides-related websites