News & Media Opinion Pieces The Control of Pesticides in the European Union and Australia

The Control of Pesticides in the European Union and Australia

The Collegium Ramazzinihas made a Call for Action to Protect Human Health in relation to pesticides

The Collegium is an international scientific society that examines critical issues in occupational and environmental medicine with a view towards action to prevent disease and promote health. The Collegium is comprised of 180 physicians and scientists from 35 countries, each of whom is elected to membership. The Collegium is independent of commercial interests. It states

Almost half of all fruits, vegetables and cereals grown in the European Union are contaminated with pesticides. Five percent of food items tested contain concentrations that exceed legal limits for individual pesticides. In addition, contaminated drinking water, dusts and spray drift contribute to human exposures.

Pesticides are used widely in agriculture for crop protection, and they are also applied in homes and gardens. Despite European policies to reduce pesticide use, the total EU-wide pesticide consumption has not decreased. Climate change, newly resistant strains, and monocultures are creating pressures for increased use of pesticides.

A growing body of scientific evidence now demonstrates links between exposures to hazardous pesticides and potentially serious adverse impacts on human health. Currently licensed pesticides include known and suspected carcinogens, neurotoxicants and reproductive toxicants. Infants, children, pregnant women and the developing foetus are particularly vulnerable to pesticides.

The Collegium Ramazzini urges the EU to adopt strong legislation to protect public health and the environment against adverse effects of pesticides.
In regard to the proposed Regulation on the placing of plant protection products on the market, the Collegium recommends:

* Apply stringent “cut-off” criteria as hazard triggers to eliminate the most hazardous pesticides from food products and the environment
* Approve substances for use in the cultivation of food and feed only if they are not carcinogenic, mutagenic, or toxic for reproduction
* Likewise, no substance should be approved, if it is considered to be endocrine disrupting, or causing developmental neurotoxicity or immunotoxicity
* Any derogation or dispensation from this legislation should be granted only when residues of the active substance concerned in food and feed can be assured to remain below the limit of determination using the most sensitive method; and
* The EU should support the development and implementation of safer and more effective ways to manage pests.

The European opportunity

A unique opportunity exists in the European Union this fall to enact advanced policies to control pesticide use with the aim of protecting human health and the environment. The new legislation will set the stage for pesticide use in Europe for many years to come, and it will likely have important implications also beyond Europe.

The new EU legislation will appropriately employ “cut-off” criteria to trigger bans of pesticides of high persistence and toxic potential. However, this approach is severely weakened in the draft text, because it allows pesticides with serious toxic potentials to be approved for seven years at a time.

Likewise, the legislation should prohibit pesticide use in all public areas, including residential areas and recreation grounds, hospitals and health care facilities. Aerial spraying is the most worrisome type of pesticide application and must be restricted to exceptional situations.

A strong EU pesticide legislation can become an important step toward eliminating pesticide hazards worldwide, in agreement with the Rotterdam convention. The strengthened legislation should also include means to promote non-chemical alternative methods of pest control.

Pesticide usage in the European Union

The annual application of synthetic pesticides to food crops in the EU exceeds 140,000 tonnes. This amount corresponds to 280 grams per EU citizen per year. More than 300 different pesticides are known to contaminate food products sold in the EU. One out of twenty food items exceeds the current EU legal limit for an individual pesticide. Over 25% of fruits, vegetables, and cereals are known to contain detectable residues of at least two pesticides. Processed food and baby food are also commonly contaminated.

Current approval of pesticides mainly relies on detailed risk assessments and the application of specific rules and restrictions to pesticide uses. The frequent occurrence of serious contamination of food products, feed, drinking water, and the environment call for a stringent approach to the control and surveillance of pesticide use and exposure.

Health risks to consumers

Pesticides in current use are now known or suspected of not being as safe as previously thought, whether individually or as combinations of compounds. Several approved pesticides are considered carcinogenic and may contribute to the development of malignant diseases, such as breast cancer, colon cancer, leukaemia, and lymphomas.

A large number of pesticides are toxic to the nervous system. Many of them may adversely affect the development of the brain and are suspected of causing degenerative disease of the nervous system in adults.

Endocrine disruption and other types of reproductive toxicity can adversely affect the development of reproductive organs and impair reproductive function and fertility.

Children and pregnant women are at particular risk. Pesticides can impact on human development, and such effects are likely to be irreversible and may even cross generations.

New information is continuously emerging on adverse health effects of pesticides, thus disputing the validity of current approvals and legal residue limits. New legal instruments are therefore needed to facilitate appropriate action to substitute, ban, or restrict previously approved pesticides, as new health hazards are recognized.

European action

Despite complaints from chemical manufacturers and large farming interests, the European Union is now moving ahead with plans to tighten regulations on the use of pesticides in the EU.The European Parliament (EP) has agreed to replace “the established risk-based system… with a hazard-based” system under which pesticides that are “mutagenic, carcinogenic, rephrotoxic or endocrine disruptive would be banned.” On October 13, Green Germany Member of Parliament Hiltrud Breyer caused a stir when she called for even stronger controls that would ban ingredients “considered to cause a risk of developmental neurotoxic or immunotoxic properties in humans.” Noting that “neurological diseases… are on the increase,” Breyer called on the EP to scrap a provision that would allow continued use of hazardous chemicals for five years “if there are no alternatives available” The UK Pesticides Safety Directorate counters that increased pesticide controls would remove 85% of “current crop protection products” from the market and threaten farm yields. Breyer insists that the UK Directorate’s warnings are exaggerated and Macroworld Investor reports that the EU Commission supports the view that such reports are merely “designed to create panic.” The EP is set to vote on Breyer’s amendment on November 5.

The Australian Situation
by Alison Bleaney

The Australian community needs reassurance that the way pesticides are being used and their off-target migration is acceptable especially in the light of continuing international scientific findings of adverse effects.

The need to protect water catchments and raw drinking water from all chemicals which may have a detrimental effect in the ecosystem is of paramount importance. That communications regarding the reduction of disease-inducing and modifying chemicals is not occurring by those that regulate for the use and application of these chemicals, goes against all the arguments for preventative approaches to human and environmental health, let alone social justice

As Pete Myers succinctly states in his book “Our Stolen Future

‘Current regulatory practices give chemical manufacturers the benefit of the doubt. Substances can be removed from the market only if their health impacts can be demonstrated with scientific certainty. This burden of proof needs to be shifted. If plausible doubt can be justified about the safety of chemical compounds, their use should be allowed only if the manufacturer can prove they represent no inappropriate threat to human or ecosystem health. This is especially important for endocrine disrupting chemicals because increasingly it appears that aspects of their modes of action make it very difficult for epidemiological science to demonstrate causality with certainty. On the contrary, epidemiological studies of endocrine disruption in humans are biased toward finding false negatives.’

The CSIRO is working with the Australian Federal and States and Territories Governments to introduce a desk-top tool (Pesticide Impact Rating Index (PIRI)) that it proposes will assist with the predictive risk assessment with pesticide use. Unfortunately the PIRI ‘explicitly’ excludes risks to humans and concentrates instead on the environmental risks, but it admits the toxicity impact of a range of pesticides on key aquatic species is not known. It also does not consider ANY sub-lethal effects (and gives no weighting to endocrine disruptors) but uses a LD 50 for any given species and not the most sensitive species in that ecosystem.

The problems encountered with loopholes in rules and regulations and the difficulty in implementing preventative measures seem indeed at times insurmountable due to the approach taken by the regulators (Federal and State) and their obvious difficulty in dealing with complex ‘real life’ situations.

There is a need for regulatory control of “poisonous chemicals” (pesticides) that cover both the regulation for their use and the application and movement off-site in a protectionary fashion.

It is no longer acceptable to allow the application of poisonous chemicals (pesticides) and to then turn one’s back on the consequences after the point of application.

We need to ensure that regulators enforce and police regulations which are put in place to protect the public and the environment.