This year marks the end of the Agricultural Health Study, a 20-year study of the effects of pesticides on farm workers and their families. Although the study focused on Iowa and North Carolina, there are still some elements that are important for Pennsylvania farmers as well as anyone who handles chemical compounds.
As the largest study of agricultural exposures in the world, this research focused on cancer in those who apply pesticides to the crops along with their spouses and children. It also looked at reproductive health, respiratory concerns, neurological symptoms, diabetes, thyroid disease, rheumatoid arthritis and injury. More than 89,000 people participated in this study that provided key information on farming practices, pesticide use and health status.
Some of the main results showed that because of pesticide exposure, farmers had a greater risk for cancers, especially prostate cancer. There was also a strong connection to Parkinson’s disease because of the exposure to rotenone and paraquat. Rotenone is an odorless chemical compound used in pesticides as well as insecticides. Paraquat is a chemical weed killer. Other significant issues discovered from pesticide exposure in both men and women in the study were asthma, diabetes and thyroid disease.
Probably the most critical finding of this study is one of the most profound and common sense discoveries: The use of gloves is a strong barrier against the harmful effects of pesticides.
As part of the study, researchers took measurements of pesticides that penetrated into the body from those who wore gloves and those who did not. Those who wore gloves were 70 percent less likely to have pesticide residues penetrate their systems. In addition, washing your hands was another prime barrier against absorbing chemical residues into the body after handling pesticides. Furthermore, protective clothing and equipment can also provide an extra layer of protection against the harmful substances.
In all, the study resulted in 175 published reports in scientific literature regarding poor health effects from pesticide exposures.
What does this mean to the general population? Quite a bit, actually. Many of us aren’t on the farms handling pesticides or insecticides daily, but we do handle more chemicals than we think. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, there are more than 80,000 chemicals in the U.S. that have never been fully tested for their health and environmental effects. Advocacy groups such as the council are working to change that. In the meantime, all we can do today is learn how to deal with the chemicals we know about and have some control over such as bug sprays, weed killers and even chlorine or Clorox.
The Environmental Protection Agency puts out a consumer handbook on how to purchase, use and store pesticides. Here are some key elements from that book:
- Before you buy a product, read the label. You may not need the product for your intended use.
- If asked to dilute the product, make sure you use measuring implements that you do not use for cooking. Even if you wash them, it is not safe to use that implement for anything other than the pesticide.
- Wear protective clothing. If you are spraying your garden, make sure you wear long pants and long sleeves along with gloves. On windy days, you may even want to wear face protection such as a mask.
- Never eat or smoke around these products. Many pesticides are flammable and toxic to ingest. Use common sense when using such products.
- If using a chemical inside, such as Clorox, make sure your room is adequately ventilated. Make sure your pets and children are removed from the room when in use. If you are spraying your kitchen for pests, make sure you remove all food and pots/pans so they are not infected.
More details can be found at epa.gov. Use common sense with your pesticide products and you will be able to maintain good health.
Note: The Agricultural Health Study ran from 1993 to 2014 and was approved by the institutional review boards of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, its contractors and by the Health Canada’s Research Ethics Board.
Nina Bell, Ph.D., MPH, is a public health professor with Ashford University and works in health promotions for the Meadville Family YMCA. She is a co-author of the book “Community and Public Health,” published by Bridgepoint Education Inc. You can email her at email@example.com.