Pesticide is an umbrella term for commonly used in agriculture and forestry, including insecticides, fungicides, and plant growth regulators.
Pesticides are chemicals or organic mixtures with a broad range of uses. They prevent pest damage, kill weeds, and provide protection against plant diseases.
Although their use is to improve profit and crop yield, the health effects of pesticides are incredibly harmful to human health and the environment.
This article discusses the health effects of pesticides and shares helpful tips for reducing pesticide exposure.
Where are pesticides found?
In order to protect yourself from the negative health effects of pesticides, it’s important to know where they’re commonly found.
Pesticides are primarily used in the agricultural and forestry industry. Most farms use pesticides on food in order to protect their plants from damage caused by pests, weeds, and disease.
Farmers apply pesticides to food crops and decorative plants like flowers by hand or using specialized machines on larger-scale farms. Sometimes, aircraft, known as “crop dusters” or “top dressers,” apply pesticides over large areas in the forestry and agricultural industries.
Farms that grow ornamental plants apply pesticides to the soil as well as to plants throughout their growth cycle in order to prevent the growth of weeds, manage disease, and kill pests that may damage crops.
Home Lawns and Gardens
Unfortunately, applying pesticides to lawns and home gardens is all too common. Most lawn care services apply pesticides to keep your lawn green and free of any critters. Home gardeners will often use pesticides to keep insects away and preserve their homegrown foods.
Home Care Products
It is also common to find pesticides in cleaning products and pest or insect repellents.
Types of pesticides
Organic pesticides come from nature, like plant extracts and microorganisms.
Examples of organic pesticides include:
- Diatomaceous earth: fossilized water microbes used to kill insects
- Neem oil: neem tree oil extract used to control pests and diseases
- Pyrethrins: an extract from chrysanthemums that’s toxic to insects
Organic pesticides are usually less toxic than synthetic pesticides, but they can still harm the environment and human health, especially when improperly used.
Synthetic pesticides use a chemical process by chemically changing a once natural substance. These substances are extracted from naturally occurring sources, like plants, minerals, and animals.
Examples of synthetic pesticides include:
- Glyphosate: a widely used systemic herbicide applied to plant foliage, lawns, gardens, aquatic environments, and more
- Deltamethrin: a man-made version of pyrethrin used as an insecticide
- Malathion: an insecticide used to control pests in agricultural settings and lawns
Finding pesticide exposure in everyday life
Many of us aren’t aware of just how prevalent pesticides are. Almost 3 billion tons of pesticides are used around the world every year on food crops, lawns, gardens, and more.
Exposure to pesticides can come into our bodies in a variety of ways. They enter your body through eating, drinking, breathing, and even skin contact.
For example, pesticide residues are common in varying amounts on foods that make up large parts of most people’s diets, like fruits, vegetables, and grains.
You can also be exposed to pesticides through contact with garden and lawn care products and bug and pest repellents. Because of this, avoiding all exposure to pesticides usually isn’t possible.
Health effects of pesticides on human health (short-term and long-term) brain, gut, etc.
Studies show that the health effects of pesticides pose a significant threat to human health and the environment.
Certain pesticides can interfere with hormones, modulate expression levels of genes, interact with neurotransmitter systems, and trigger inflammation and cellular damage that can negatively impact health.
However, the health risks associated with pesticide exposure depend on these three things:
- toxicity of the pesticides
- length of exposure
- route of exposure
Health effects of pesticides with long-term consumption and diseases
People with heavy exposure to pesticides, like farm workers and florists, may be at the greatest risk for pesticide-related health issues. Exposure to high pesticide levels for short time periods can lead to acute positioning, while long-term exposure to pesticides, even in small amounts, can lead to other serious health issues over time.
For example, farm workers who regularly handle pesticides have been shown to have higher rates of cancers, such as multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, bladder cancer, prostate cancer, breast cancer, and leukemia.
Exposure to pesticides, either through work or home use, has also been linked to an increased of risk disease. Some examples of these are atherosclerosis—a buildup of plaque in the arteries that increases heart disease risk— Alzheimer’s disease, respiratory diseases, nervous system dysfunction, a weakened immune system, and other medical conditions.
For people who don’t work with pesticides, these chemicals still pose a serious risk to health. Studies have linked the consumption of pesticide residue found on fruits and vegetables to a possible increased risk of brain and spinal cord cancer.
Low pesticide exposure linked to health benefits
What’s more, a 2022 study found that a high intake of fruits and vegetables with low pesticide residue can be linked with protection against death from all causes. In contrast, a high intake of fruits and vegetables with high pesticide residue made no difference in mortality, meaning that a higher intake of pesticide residue likely cancels out the beneficial effects of fruits and vegetables on mortality.
While organically-grown produce may use organic pesticides, organic pesticides don’t carry the same health risks as synthetic pesticides. Plus, organic foods have lower pesticide residue levels. A 2018 population-based study that included 68,946 French adults found that people who ate mostly organic food had a significantly lower risk of cancer compared to people who ate low amounts of organic food.
How do pesticides affect children?
Children are smaller than adults and are more susceptible to the adverse effects of pesticides.
Like in adults, pesticide exposure in children can lead to health issues like respiratory conditions and impaired neurodevelopment. However, the health effects depend on the type of pesticides they come in contact with and the length of exposure.
Children’s exposure to pesticides through residues found on lawns and playgrounds through their diet. Pesticide exposure can also come through home products containing pesticides, like disinfectants.
It’s important to protect children from pesticide exposure whenever possible. You can do this by using nontoxic lawn, garden, and cleaning products.
Organic diets can also help significantly reduce urinary pesticide metabolite concentrations in children.
How do pesticides affect environmental and animal health, and how does that affect human health?
Because of the use pesticides on farms, lawns, gardens, and forests, it’s no surprise that pesticides cause significant harm to the environment, including plants, insects, animals, soil, air quality, and waterways.
The health effects of pesticides in our water
Runoff is a term used to describe the movement of pesticides in water over a sloped surface. Pesticides used on farms, lawns, parks, and gardens can move with water, polluting streams, ponds, lakes, bays, and wells, which endangers animals and humans.
How pesticides affect our soil quality
Pesticides also reduce the biodiversity of soil, which has important living organisms like bacteria, fungi, and earthworms. This leads to reduced soil quality, including its ability to hold water, which increases the risk of flooding and extreme droughts.
How pesticides affect our food supply
Many pesticides are also toxic to insects and animals, including pollinators like bees, butterflies, and birds, which are dying off at an alarming rate. Not only are pollinators critical to the environment, but they’re necessary for human food supply. In fact, around 75% of the world’s flowering plants and about 35% of the world’s food crops need pollinators in order to reproduce.
The health effects of pesticides in the air we breathe
What’s more, pesticides emit pollutants, including hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) and volatile organic compounds (VOC), that affect the quality of the air we breathe.
How to reduce pesticide exposure
Although most people can’t avoid pesticide exposure completely, there’s plenty you can do to reduce pesticides in your diet and in your home.
Here are some of the most effective ways to limit pesticide exposure:
- Follow an organic diet: Choosing organic foods whenever possible will reduce the amount of pesticide residue exposure. If you can’t afford to eat 100% organic, try to choose organic versions of the Dirty Dozen when you can.
- Use environmentally-friendly lawn and garden products: Think of your lawn and garden as your outdoor living room. Would you dump toxic chemicals on your living room couch or rug? Of course not! Remember, you can absorb certain pesticides through your skin. That’s why it’s best to protect your health by choosing nontoxic lawn products that won’t harm humans or animals.
- Clean your home with nontoxic products: Many household cleaners, like disinfectant sprays, contain compounds such as quaternary ammonium compounds (QACs) that are harmful to health. There are plenty of natural cleaning alternatives to choose from. Some cleaners you can even make at home from inexpensive ingredients like vinegar.
- Avoid using synthetic insect and animal repellents: Insect and rodent repellents contain toxic compounds that can be incredibly harmful to health. Try using natural repellents, like essential oil-based products, instead.
By choosing nontoxic products and following an organic diet whenever possible, you can reduce your exposure to pesticides.
For people who can’t avoid pesticide exposure, like florists and people who work on farms, wearing protective equipment like masks and gloves can help keep you safe.
How to reduce pesticide levels, and how long does it take to remove pesticides from the body?
Several studies have shown that transitioning from a conventional diet to an organic diet can help reduce body levels of pesticide metabolites in the body.
A 2017 study showed that when people followed an organic diet for 18 days after following a conventional diet for 11 days, it led to a small yet significant reduction in pesticides. These measures show in urinary pesticide excretion, including pyrethroid metabolites, dialkyl phosphates, and phenoxy herbicides.
Likewise, a 2015 study found that transitioning to an organic diet significantly reduced urine levels of dimethyl OP insecticide metabolites and the herbicide 2,4-D in children.
Because pesticides have different half-lives or the amount of time it takes for a chemical to decrease to one-half its initial value, it’s hard to say how long pesticides stay in your system. Unfortunately, pesticide exposure can lead to health issues later in life. Therefore, it’s best to minimize your exposure whenever possible in order to protect yourself from the health effects of pesticides.
The bottom line
Pesticides are chemicals that most people have exposure to in varying amounts on a regular basis. Pesticides, by design, help kill insects and weeds, prevent plant diseases, and improve plant growth. They’re used on our food, on lawns and gardens, and can even be found in household cleaners like disinfectants.
Many pesticides are incredibly harmful to human health and the health of the environment, which is why it’s important to limit your exposure to pesticides whenever possible.
Choosing organically-grown foods, using nontoxic lawn and garden products, and cleaning your home with natural products are all effective ways to reduce your exposure to pesticides.
This website is for informational purposes only and should not be taken as medical advice. Before making any changes to your diet, exercise, or lifestyle habits, always consult your doctor or physician first.