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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 47, New Delhi, November 7, 2020

New Study Confirms Pesticides Link to Childhood Cancer | Bharat Dogra

Sunday 8 November 2020, by Bharat Dogra

Pesticides have been linked to childhood cancers in a recent study which is attracting a lot of attention in the USA. These findings also have a lot of relevance in developing countries like India where, due to less awareness of hazards and precautions as well as the prevalence of child labour, chances of children including child labourers coming in close or direct contact with pesticides are higher.

This study (2020) titled ’Childhood Cancer - Cross-Sector Strategies for Prevention’ has been prepared by the Childhood Cancer Prevention Initiative (CCPI), USA. This study argues that while childhood cancers are increasing at a fast pace, not enough attention has been given to preventive aspects, particularly to preventing and reducing the environmental causes of cancers. In this context this study emphasizes the reduction of exposure of carcinogenic and highly toxic substances with special emphasis on highly hazardous chemicals particularly chemical pesticides.

This study says, “Exposure to pesticides—the catch-all term for chemicals used to control insects (insecticides), weeds (herbicides) and fungi (fungicides) on crops and at home—has been implicated as a risk factor for leukaemias, brain cancers and childhood lymphomas… A number of currently used pesticides are known or suspected carcinogens, according to evaluation by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of the evidence for specific pesticides. Examples of EPA ( Environmental Protection Agency of the USA)-registered pesticides currently used in the US and classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as known, probable or possible human carcinogens: include 2,4-D, diazinon, dichlorvos, heptachlor, ethylene dibromide, formaldehyde, glyphosate, lindane, malathion, parathion, pentachlorophenol, toxaphene”

It is disturbing to know that cancers can also be passed on to children from parents exposed to pesticides in their occupation. As the CCPI document notes, “Studies have examined associations between parental occupational exposure to pesticides and childhood leukaemias and brain cancers. Maternal exposure during pregnancy is implicated in two meta-analyses examining links between chemicals and childhood leukaemia; one of these found evidence linking leukaemias with exposure to insecticides as well as herbicides. Both maternal and paternal exposures from working in the agricultural sector are associated with elevated rates of childhood brain tumours. It is important to note that the children exposed to high levels of agricultural pesticides are often low-income and immigrant children.”

Further this study notes, “ In comparison to controls, elevated risks for childhood leukemia have been observed in children born to mothers who were exposed before conception and during pregnancy and in children exposed after birth. For brain cancer, risks are elevated for children born to mothers exposed during pregnancy and children whose fathers were exposed prior to conception. For lymphoma, risks are strongest for children whose mothers were exposed during pregnancy.”

This study has called upon pesticide manufacturers and promoters to heed warnings of cancer, or else their own products and businesses will be harmed sooner or later due to growing public awareness. The study says, “in early 2019, Bayer’s stock value plummeted over 44%—a near seven-year low for the company—in the wake of yet another lawsuit which found that Bayer’s recently acquired product, Roundup, was a cause of cancer. With over 13,000 claims focused on the carcinogenicity of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, investors were left wondering if Bayer’s $63-billion acquisition of Monsanto in 2018 was worth the financial risk.”

Pointing to the seriousness of this problem this study says, “Three primary pathways expose pregnant women, babies, and children to pesticides: parental work in agriculture; food and beverage consumption; and insect and weed control in residential, work, education and care facilities. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have found that 90% of Americans have pesticides in their blood and urine, and parental exposure to insecticides and herbicides is linked to childhood cancer.”

Finally this study makes the following policy recommendations,

1. Require that government facilities and all early care and learning settings implement biologically-based Integrated Pest Management (IPM) strategies to minimize the use of chemicals to solve pest control problems.
2. Protect families from residential pesticides, ban the open-market sale of pesticides that are carcinogenic or neurotoxic.
3. Establish tight limits on acceptable levels of pesticides in final food products.
4. Ban chemical pesticides for ornamental uses.
5. Keep new pesticides off the market; forbid approval of new pesticides until proven safe.

The findings of this study are highly relevant for developing countries like India where risks of occupational exposure to pesticides are higher and several child workers directly handle pesticides. As childhood cancers have been increasing in many developing countries including India these countries need to give adequate attention to the warnings and policy recommendations of this study.

(The writer has written extensively on health issues. His books include Protecting Earth for Children and What our Children will Inherit.)

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