By:Georgina Downs

The risk of cancer from the world's top herbicide, glyphosate, is just the tip of the iceberg of health damage caused by exposure to pesticides and other toxic agrochemicals, writes Georgina Downs. It's time for governments to correct their scandalous failure to protect rural residents from the cocktails of poisons sprayed on crops.

Furious debate has been raging over the recent conclusion of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) that glyphosate, the world's most widely used weedkiller, is a 'probable human carcinogen'.

But hardly anything has been said about the many millions of rural residents across the country who have no protection at all from exposure to this pesticide that is often sprayed near our homes.

Although Roundup is probably the most well-known glyphosate product there are in fact 431 products currently approved for use in the UK containing glyphosate [1], the majority of which are for use on farm crops.

The latest Government statistics [2] on pesticide usage show that in 2013 the total area treated with glyphosate on all crops in Great Britain was 1,743,735 hectares, with the total weight applied being 1,471,997 kg.

Considering the widespread use of glyphosate in agriculture worldwide then it is not surprising that IARC noted in its statement that glyphosate has been detected in the air during spraying, in water, and in food. [3]

'Convincing evidence'

Having reviewed the science, IARC concluded that there was limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans for non-Hodgkin lymphoma based on studies of exposures, mostly agricultural, in the USA, Canada, and Sweden published since 2001. [4]

In addition, IARC concluded that there is convincing evidence that glyphosate also can cause cancer in laboratory animals. [5] IARC also noted that one study in community residents reported increases in blood markers of chromosomal damage (micronuclei) after glyphosate formulations were sprayed nearby. [6]

Glyphosate has also been previously linked in other scientific studies to Parkinson's disease and infertility, [7] as well as other health problems.

It has been reported that dermal exposure to ready-to-use glyphosate formulations can cause irritation and photo-contact dermatitis. Inhalation from spray mist can cause oral or nasal discomfort and tingling and throat irritation. Eye exposure may lead to mild conjunctivitis, and superficial corneal injury is possible if irrigation is delayed or inadequate. [8]

A chorus of unconvincing industry protestations

Following IARC's recent conclusions on the carcinogenicity of glyphosate, the pesticide industry and its supporters have gone in to overdrive in its protestations of safety.

So much so that one known industry lobbyist, Dr. Patrick Moore, made himself look a prize idiot during an interview on the French television station Canal+ [9] by claiming glyphosate was perfectly safe to drink as he said "You can drink a whole quart of it and it won't hurt you."

His interviewer very quickly responded with "You want to drink some? We have some here." After some to-ing and fro-ing in which Dr. Moore said "No, no I'm not stupid" and"No, I'm not an idiot" he then left, telling the interviewer he was a "complete jerk".

This reminded me of the time when I attended a conference in 2003 and during the lunch break I had a brief discussion with a representative of Monsanto who was also in attendance. He too insisted that glyphosate was safe enough to drink. So I asked if we could arrange a time when he would drink some and I would film it on my camcorder.

Cue flaffing and flustering on his part before he said nervously "well the Monsanto legal department would not allow me to do that." I replied: "Well do not go around saying it then as it is both misleading and dangerous."

In some US states it is in fact an offence for the industry to make claims that pesticides are safe. Also, the EU Regulation on the authorisation of pesticides specifically states that those advertising pesticide products (which must surely include verbally!) shall not include information which could be misleading as regards possible risks to human or animal health or to the environment, such as the terms 'low risk', 'non-toxic' or 'harmless'. [10]

No doubt the French interview is one that Dr. Moore would like to quickly forget. However, with nearly 950,000 views on Youtube and growing [11] it is there as a permanent reminder of the deliberate lies and misinformation spread by representatives and supporters of the pesticides industry and which has been swallowed hook, line and sinker by successive Governments – not only in the UK but around the world.

The priority – keep the sales pipeline flowing at all costs

Pesticides are obviously very big business. Sales of pesticides in the UK alone for 2011/12 was £627 million [12] and reports have put the value of the world pesticides industry ataround a staggering $53 billion. [13]

It is again clear from the fierce (and indeed rather panicked) response from the pesticides industry to the IARC conclusions on glyphosate that the primary concern of manufacturers is, as ever, to protect the sales of their products and related profits and to keep such pesticides being used.


Approximately 80% of pesticides used in the UK each year are related to agricultural use. Therefore although pesticides are used in a number of other sectors (including forestry; home and garden; amenity; amongst others), the agricultural sector is by far and away the largest user.

Tip of the iceberg

In relation to rural residents, the glyphosate cancer risk is just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, people across the UK who live near conventionally farmed cropland have no protection from any of the poisons currently permitted under Government policy to be sprayed on fields.

This is due to the fact that there are fundamental failings in the way that pesticides have been approved (and not only here in the UK and across Europe, but on a global scale).

As to date, the official method used by regulators for assessing the risks to people from crop spraying – and under which many thousands of pesticide products have been approved – has been based on the model of a short term 'bystander', occasionally exposed, for just a few minutes, and to just one pesticide at any time.

This means that pesticides have been approved for decades without first assessing the health risks for people who actually live in crop sprayed areas which obviously includes babies, children, pregnant women, the elderly, and people already ill and/or disabled.

As the real life exposure for residents, as opposed to a mere bystander, is both repeated acute and chronic exposure over the long term, it is cumulative, and is to innumerable mixtures and cocktails of pesticides used on crops.

A catastrophic public health failure

There are around 2,000 pesticide products currently approved for agricultural use in the UK alone. [14] Each product in itself can contain a number of active ingredients, as well as other hazardous chemicals, such as solvents, surfactants and co-formulants.

Considering how many millions of rural residents will be living in this situation then this is, without a doubt, a catastrophic public health and safety failure on a truly scandalous scale.

EU law requires that pesticides can only be authorised for use if it has been established that there will be no immediate or delayed harmful effect on human health, including for residents. [15] Yet, although such strict EU laws exist, they are simply not being adhered to by Member States.

In fact, the absence of any proper risk assessment for residents means that no pesticide should ever have been approved for use in the first place for spraying in the locality of residents' homes, schools, children's playgrounds, nurseries, hospitals, amongst other such areas.

Whilst operators will be in filtered cabs and/or have personal protective equipment when using pesticides, residents have no protection at all. Instead rural citizens have been put in a massive guinea pig-style experiment for which many of us residents have had to suffer the devastating – and in some cases fatal – consequences.

There are so many more horrific stories of people being poisoned from crop spraying in the locality of their homes and many involve children. Despite this, both the Labour Government and the 'Con-Dem' coalition failed to act to secure the protection of rural residents in the UK from toxic pesticides.

A similar failure to act can be seen in many countries around the world including across Europe, the United States, amongst others.

Adverse health impacts

It is now beyond dispute that pesticides can cause a wide range of both acute, and chronic, adverse effects on human health. This includes irreversible and permanent chronic effects, illnesses and diseases.

The European Commission itself has previously clearly acknowledged that: "Long term exposure to pesticides can lead to serious disturbances to the immune system, sexual disorders, cancers, sterility, birth defects, damage to the nervous system and genetic damage." [16]

An important review published in Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology [17] regarding the chronic health impacts of pesticides concluded that exposure to pesticides is associated with a wide range of chronic diseases (and the review included references to numerous studies relating to residents living in the locality of pesticide sprayed fields).

These chronic diseases include, cancers of the breast, prostate, lung, brain (including childhood brain cancer), kidney, testicles, pancreas, oesophagus, stomach, bladder, bone, as well as non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, multiple myeloma, soft tissue sarcoma, leukaemia, (including childhood leukaemia).

Other chronic health impacts include, birth defects, reproductive disorders, neuro degenerative diseases (including Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)), cardio-vascular diseases, respiratory diseases, diabetes (Type 1, 2 and gestational), chronic renal diseases, and autoimmune diseases (such as rheumatoid arthritis, and systemic lupus erythematous).

The review stated that, taken together, the chronic diseases discussed within the review are considered as the major disorders affecting public health in the 21st century, and it concluded that it is time to adopt a preventive approach and find efficient alternatives to using pesticides.

Such findings again added further support and vindication to the many residents who have continued to raise concerns over the association of pesticides and such chronic conditions.

Throughout my 14 year campaign I have continued to receive reports of chronic long-term effects, illnesses and diseases, from residents living in the locality of crop sprayed fields.

The most commonly reported include neurological conditions such as Parkinson's disease and neurological damage; and various cancers, especially those of the breast and brain, leukaemia, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, amongst others.

The acute effects reported by residents are the same as those recorded in the UK Government's own monitoring system. They include chemical burns to the eyes and skin, rashes and blisters, sore throats, burnt vocal chords, respiratory irritation, breathing problems, difficulty swallowing, headaches, dizziness, vomiting, stomach pains, and flu-type illnesses.

Governments' have a duty to protect their citizens

One of the first duties of any Government should be to protect the public, but this is patently not happening. In the UK, delays, obstruction, lack of urgency and bleats about costs have characterised the official response to the worsening pesticide crisis.

This is largely because of the relentless lobbying of the narrow and self-serving interests of the agro-chemical industry and big agricultural producers that for decades have had almost complete control over Whitehall in setting the pesticides policy agenda.

One of the main factors behind the official reluctance in the UK to take action is the belief, heavily promoted by the agro-chemical lobby, that damage will be caused to agriculture and food production by any restrictions on pesticide use. In truth, there is actually little evidence to support this.

Indeed, research on the use of non-chemical methods – such as crop rotation, physical and mechanical control and natural predator management, shows that such methods can actually match, or even provide a higher, yield. [18] In any case, the essential health of the public should come before such crude financial considerations.

There is also another critical factor when considering issues surrounding food production in that a huge amount of food is wasted every year. One previous report from the UK found that as much as half of all worldwide food produced ends up as waste, which is 2 billion tonnes every year! [19]

A health epidemic that's costing us dear!

In any event, any potential short-term financial impacts on the farming industry are far outweighed by the massive financial and economic burden that the use of pesticides imposes on the country through damage to human health and the environment.

The reality is that chemical farming is costing the UK many millions, probably even billions, every year. Indeed, the entire financial analysis of the issue by successive Governments has been hopelessly flawed because it has never taken account or factored in the wider, destructive impacts of pesticides.

For instance, the cost to the UK economy in relation to just two of the chronic conditions that have been repeatedly linked to pesticide exposure in scientific studies – cancer and Parkinson's – is colossal.

In 2008 cancer cost £5.13 billion in terms of NHS costs alone, and the total costs to society in England was estimated to be a staggering £18.33 billion, with these costs predicted to increase to £24.72 billion by 2020. [20] Similarly, it has been estimated that the total cost of Parkinson's Disease in the UK could be as high as £3.3 billion per year. [21]

Although there are a number of different causes for these chronic conditions, even if pesticides are only causing a proportion, the resulting expenditure would still be enormous, particularly when added up with the health costs of other related conditions.

Obviously it goes without saying that the personal and human costs to those suffering such health conditions, and the impacts on all those around them, cannot be calculated in financial terms.

That is not all. There are huge environmental costs of pesticide use in the UK, like the estimated £140 million per year spent removing pesticides from drinking water, [22] and the approximate £4.75 million used for monitoring pesticides at 2500 surface and groundwater sites, [23] and the estimated £5.4 million for pesticide monitoring in both food and livestock. [24]

In the US, it has been estimated that the use of chemicals to control pests incurs annual costs associated with human poisoning, loss of beneficial organisms and impact on bees of $1.2bn, $520m and $283m respectively. [25]

Such external costs would be eliminated if agricultural policies are fundamentally shifted towards utilizing non-chemical farming methods.

The fact that research has shown that more than 3,000 pest species have developed resistance to at least 300 types of insecticide ingredients [26] yet further supports the urgent need for a different approach.

The bigger picture – we need a pesticide-free future

There is no doubt that the widespread use of pesticides in agriculture is causing serious damage to the environment, wildlife and, above all, human health.

Yet many of the environmental groups and NGOs worldwide continue to focus on calls for action on individual pesticides – whether it be glyphosate, the neonicotinoid group of pesticides implicated in the decline of bees, or others. This really rather misses the bigger picture and falls into the divide and rule strategy.

Those of us residents living in the locality of crop fields and who are in the direct pesticides firing line know only too well that such a strategy is simply not going to prevent the legacy of damage that is being caused by the innumerable cocktails of pesticide poisons sprayed on crops.

Particularly as historically once one pesticide has been withdrawn another toxic chemical pesticide will just be introduced in its place. How does that solve anything? The answer is simple, it doesn't.

Instead we need a complete paradigm shift – to move away from the use of pesticides altogether and adopt non-chemical farming methods.

It goes without saying that no toxic chemicals that can harm the health of humans – anywhere in the world – should be used to grow food.



Georgina Downs is a journalist and campaigner. She has lived next to regularly sprayed crop fields in the UK for more than 30 years and runs the UK Pesticides Campaign.


Vote: Georgina has just been shortlisted in the Green Briton of the Year category in the 2015 Observer Ethical Awards. Vote here.


1. The pesticide product database is on a secure site and therefore to see the figure of 431 products that are currently approved for use in the UK containing glyphosate, go to click on number 1 that says "Search for Products by specifying Authorisation features…" etc., then in the form that comes up put glyphosate in the Active column and scroll down and click on Get Results.

2. This is again on a secure site and therefore to see the glyphosate usage figures I have cited in the article go to click on Table Format and then for Survey Year click 2013 and then for Active Substance click glyphosate and then scroll down and click on Submit.

NB. The level of usage of glyphosate in the agricultural sector in Great Britain is over 4 times higher than all non-agricultural uses in the UK combined, as the total area treated with glyphosate in the amenity sector in 2012 (which includes applications on golf courses; uses on industrial sites; in infrastructure; by public authorities; as well as on turf) was 181,634 hectares, with the total weight applied being 348,018 kg.

3, 4, 5, 6. Source: IARC statement dated 20th March 2015


8. Toxicol Rev. 2004;23(3):159-6. Glyphosate poisoning. Bradberry SM, Proudfoot AT, Vale JA.


10. Article 66, paragraph 2 of the EU Regulation 1107/2009 which can be seen at:-


12. Taken from an email from the finance department of the Chemicals Regulation Directorate (CRD), the Government regulators for pesticides, on 25th September 2012 confirming this figure.


14. According to the regulators, the Chemicals Regulation Directorate (CRD), in pers comm in November 2012.

15. Article 4, paragraph 3(b) of the EU Regulation 1107/2009 which can be seen at:-

*NB. Also, as a direct result of the work of my campaign, residents are now specifically defined as a "vulnerable group" in Article 3, para 14, of this EU Regulation which recognises that residents are "subject to high pesticide exposure over the long term."

16. Source: "Questions and answers on the pesticides strategy" published on 12th July 2006 and available at:-

17. The important review published 15th April 2013 in Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology regarding the chronic health impacts of pesticides entitled "Pesticides and Human Chronic Diseases; Evidences, Mechanisms, and Perspectives" and which can be seen at:-

18. A few such studies include:-

  • One review of over 200 food production projects involving simple, organic type techniques in different countries found that they resulted in major yield increases, ranging from 46-150%. 'Reducing Food Poverty with sustainable agriculture: A Summary of New Evidence' 'SAFE-World' Research Project. J. N. Pretty and Rachel Hine, 2000.

  • One 15-year study comparing non-chemical farming methods to conventional methods concluded that yields from non-chemical farming equal conventional yields after four years. And that's with no detriment to soil, water or human health. Rodale Institute of Kutztown, Pennsylvania, 1998.

  • A previous study published results of 205 comparisons made of yields from organic and conventional farming systems in north America and Europe. The major finding of the study was, on average, and for a wide range of crops, yields within 10 percent (90 percent) of those obtained in conventional agriculture were achieved without use of agro-chemicals. G. Stanhill, 1989.

  • Another report found that organic and agro-ecological farming in the Southern hemisphere produces dramatic yield increases, as well as greater crop diversity and greater nutritional content. For example: Tigray, Ethiopia (composted plots yield 3-5 times more than chemically treated plots), Brazil (maize yields increased 20-250%); and Peru (increases of 150% for a range of upland crops). 'The Real Green Revolution – Organic and agro-ecological farming in the South',N. Parrott and T. Marsden, Greenpeace, 2002.

  • A study in Africa also showed an increase in yields from using organic and non-chemical methods. The article stated, "The research conducted by the UN Environment Programme suggests that organic, small-scale farming can deliver the increased yields which were thought to be the preserve of industrial farming, without the environmental and social damage which that form of agriculture brings with it. An analysis of 114 projects in 24 African countries found that yields had more than doubled where organic, or near-organic practices had been used. That increase in yield jumped to 128 per cent in east Africa."

  • Researchers in Denmark found that a large-scale shift to organic agriculture could actually help fight world hunger while improving the environment. "Organic agriculture and food security," Mark W. Rosegrant, Timothy B. Sulser, and Niels Halberg, 2007.

19. Source: The UK's Institution of Mechanical Engineers 2013 report, 'Global Food; Waste Not, Want Not'.

20. Policy Exchange, Research Note, Feb. 2010, entitled "The cost of cancer," page 1, which can be seen at

21. Source: "The economic impact of Parkinson's disease" by Leslie J Findley, published in September 2007. Abstract can be seen at:-

22. Source: Jules Pretty, Professor of Environment and Society in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Essex.

23. Source: "An assessment of the total external costs of UK agriculture," Prof Jules Prettyet al, August 2000.

24. Source: 'An assessment of the total external costs of UK agriculture' by Prof Jules Pretty et al, August 2000

25. Pimentel, D., 'Environmental and economic costs of the application of pesticides primarily in the United States. Environment Development and Sustainability', 2005. 7(2): p. 229-252.

26. Hardy, M.C., 'Resistance is not futile: it shapes insecticide discovery'. Insects, 2014. 5(1): p. 227-242.


Originally Published: Ecologist