May 12, 2019
Pesticides among the leading causes of death by self-poisoning
- Pesticides are used to protect crops against insects, weeds, fungi and other pests.
- Pesticides are potentially toxic to humans and can have both acute and chronic health effects, depending on the quantity and ways in which a person is exposed.
- Some of the older, cheaper pesticides can remain for years in soil and water. These chemicals have been banned from agricultural use in developed countries, but they are still used in many developing countries.
- People who face the greatest health risks from exposure to pesticides are those who come into contact with them at work, in their home or garden.
- Pesticides play a significant role in food production. They protect or increase yields and the number of times per year a crop can be grown on the same land. This is particularly important in countries that face food shortages.
- To protect food consumers from adverse effects of pesticides, WHO reviews evidence and develops internationally-accepted maximum residue limits.
Many of the older, cheaper (off-patent) pesticides, such as dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) and lindane, can remain for years in soil and water. These chemicals have been banned by countries who signed the 2001 Stockholm Convention – an international treaty that aims to eliminate or restrict the production and use of persistent organic pollutants.
The toxicity of a pesticide depends on its function and other factors. For example, insecticides tend to be more toxic to humans than herbicides. The same chemical can have different effects at different doses (how much of the chemical a person is exposed to). It can also depend on the route by which the exposure occurs (such as swallowing, inhaling, or direct contact with the skin).
None of the pesticides that are authorized for use on food in international trade today are genotoxic (damaging to DNA, which can cause mutations or cancer). Adverse effects from these pesticides occur only above a certain safe level of exposure. When people come into contact with large quantities of pesticide, this may cause acute poisoning or long-term health effects, including cancer and adverse effects on reproduction.https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/pesticide-residues-in-food
Scope of the problem
Pesticides are among the leading causes of death by self-poisoning, in particular in low- and middle-income countries.
As they are intrinsically toxic and deliberately spread in the environment, the production, distribution, and use of pesticides require strict regulation and control. Regular monitoring of residues in food and the environment is also required.
WHO has two objectives in relation to pesticides:
- to ban pesticides that are most toxic to humans, as well as pesticides that remain for the longest time in the environment.
- to protect public health by setting maximum limits for pesticide residues in food and water.
Who is at risk?
The most at-risk population are people who are directly exposed to pesticides. This includes agricultural workers who apply pesticides, and other people in the immediate area during and right after pesticides are spread.
The general population – who are not in the area where pesticides are used – is exposed to significantly lower levels of pesticide residues through food and water.