Exposure to Pesticides is Damaging Our Health – and There’s Nothing We Can Do About It

The University of Indiana recently published a study looking into the presence of pesticides in pregnant people’s urine and their results were alarming. 

The study looked at the presence and concentration of dicamba and 2,4 dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (or 2,4 D) in urine, two pesticides that have been widely used for decades. Between 2010 and 2012, 28% of pregnant people’s urine contained dicamba; between 2020 and 2022, this rose to 70%. Moreover, the concentration of dicamba had increased fourfold between the samples. Both samples found 2,4-D in 100% of the subjects, however, the concentration was higher in the second data pool. 

Whilst the stats are concerning, there is no evidence of dicamba posing a risk to foetuses. Dr Xun Song is a toxicologist and has looked into the effects of dicamba in pregnant rabbits and rats. Song concluded that “data from the animal studies suggests that dicamba is not likely to cause reproductive effects in humans at usual exposure levels.” 

Concerning Studies Conducted in China

Photo by cottonbro studio: https://www.pexels.com/photo/2-pregnant-woman-in-long-sleeve-dresses-5853674/

Studies into 2,4-D are not so reassuring. A study conducted in Wuhan, China including 885 pairs of mothers and infants found that the presence of 2,4-D in maternal urine in early pregnancy may affect the infant’s steroid hormone homeostasis. Another study linked prenatal 2,4-D exposure with poorer neurodevelopment in the child by the age of one. 

Indiana University’s study is not the only one to be sounding the alarm. Another report found that 54% of pregnant people had been exposed to pesticides and that 93% of these were from the home. Exposure to pesticides during pregnancy has been linked to poor gestational weight gain, premature birth, lower birth weights, and even miscarriages – however, this study was not conclusive and calls for further research into this topic.

It is known, however, that pesticides are capable of crossing the placental barrier and influencing placental structures, potentially affecting the transport of nutrients from a birthing person to the foetus. 

For individuals, avoiding pesticide exposure is incredibly difficult. Dicamba and 2,4-D are known to drift long distances onto neighbouring fields and the local area. It is for this reason that Arizona banned three dicamba-based pesticides in February this year, ruling they were harming other crops. 

Humans absorb pesticides through our airways, gastrointestinal tract, or our skin. We cannot detect ourselves becoming exposed to these chemicals and thus, cannot do anything to reduce exposure. So long as the agricultural industry depends on pesticides, we will continue to be exposed to them. 

The Pesticide Boom

Photo by Tom Fisk: https://www.pexels.com/photo/top-view-of-green-field-1595104/

In 1945, pesticide use in agriculture exploded. Productivity per hectare and worker grew as did the farms themselves. Family-run farms became increasingly rare. Instead, larger-scale company-owned farms became increasingly specialised consequently reducing biodiversity. Family labour fell and contract work rose, bringing with it the rise in the use of pesticides.

As this reliance on pesticides became established, pests began to evolve. This sparked what Robert van den Bosch termed the pesticide treadmill. Researchers were required to find new pesticides every few decades to combat the new resistant bugs. 

Whilst scientists have known about the dangers of pesticides to humans for decades, little has been achieved in response. 

Whilst organic farmland, which is pesticide-free, has risen by 74% between 2008 and 2018 in the European Union, in reality, this is still only 8% of all farmland. 

A Call to Action

Photo by freestocks.org: https://www.pexels.com/photo/blue-and-yellow-round-star-print-textile-113885/

In 2009, The EU obligated integrated pest management (IPM) for farmers. The European Commission defined IPM as the “careful consideration of all available plant protection methods and subsequent integration of appropriate measures that discourage the development of populations of harmful organisms and keep the use of plant protection products and other forms of intervention to levels that are economically and ecologically justified and reduced or minimise risks to human health and the environment.” However, overall pesticide use has been unaffected by the policy and the National Action Plans required from each country have been largely ignored

Whilst some are calling for pesticide-free farming, this is not without complications. Yields would likely be lower and less reliable, leading to an overall decrease in productivity. Whilst pesticide-free farming is the only long-term solution to the implications of pesticide exposure in humans, it is only possible with appropriate financial support and technological development. 

Unfortunately, Pandora’s Box of Pesticides has been open for much too long for us to close it now – not without, that is, radical interventions and inventions.

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  • Kate Crawley

    Kate Crawley is an English Literature Graduate from University College London. Beyond writing, she likes being outside, going to the gym, and reading.

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