Adverse Impact of Pesticides on Human Rights

Pesticides are NOT necessary to feed the world says report authors

This post content, published by Hilal Elver, UN Special Rapporteur on Right to Food, and Baskut Tuncak, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights & Hazardous Substances & Wastes, is our abstract Part 1/4 of their Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food for the United Nations.

The report warnings of catastrophic consequences and blaming manufacturers for ‘systematic denial of harms’ and ‘unethical marketing tactics’ is shared by Damian Carrington alongside with report UNSR authors interview on The Guardian. Image credit Pam Link.


Hazardous pesticides impose substantial costs on Governments and have catastrophic impacts on the environment, human health and society as a whole, implicating a number of human rights and putting certain groups at elevated risk of rights abuses.

Human health

Few people are untouched by pesticide exposure. They may be exposed through food, water, air, or direct contact with pesticides or residues. However, given that most diseases are multi-causal, and bearing in mind that individuals tend to be exposed to a complex mixture of chemicals in their daily lives, establishing a direct causal link between exposure to pesticides and their effects can be a challenge for accountability and for victims seeking access to an effective remedy. Even so, persistent use of pesticides, in particular agrochemicals used in industrial farming, have been connected to a range of adverse health impacts, both at high and low exposure levels.

Pesticide poisonings remain a serious concern, especially in developing countries, even though these nations account for only 25 per cent of pesticide usage. In some countries, pesticide poisoning even exceeds fatalities from infectious diseases. Tragic accidents involving poisoning include an incident in 1999 in Peru, where 24 schoolchildren died following the consumption of the highly toxic pesticide parathion, which had been packaged so that it was mistaken for powdered milk. Other cases include the deaths of 23 children in India in 2013 after consuming a meal contaminated with the highly hazardous pesticide monocrotophos; the poisoning of 39 preschool children in China in 2014 from consumption of food containing residues of the pesticide TETs; and the deaths of 11 children in Bangladesh in 2015 after eating fruits laced with pesticides.

Unfortunately, there are no reliable, global statistics on the number of people who suffer from pesticide exposure. Recently, the non-profit organization Pesticide Action Network estimated that the number of people affected annually by short- and long-term pesticide exposure ranged between 1 million and 41 million.

Of grave concern are the impacts of chronic exposure to hazardous pesticides. Pesticide exposure has been linked to cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, hormone disruption, developmental disorders and sterility. They can also cause numerous neurological health effects such as memory loss, loss of coordination, reduced visual ability and reduced motor skills. Other possible effects include asthma, allergies and hypersensitivity. These symptoms are often very subtle and may not be recognized by the medical community as a clinical effect caused by pesticides. Furthermore, chronic effects of pesticides may not manifest for months or years after exposure, presenting a significant challenge for accountability and access to an effective remedy, including preventive interventions.

Despite grave human health risks having been well established for numerous pesticides, they remain in use. Even where pesticides have been banned or restricted, the risk of contamination can persist for many decades and they may continue to accumulate in food sources. In many cases, possible health impacts have not been extensively studied before pesticides are placed on the market. This is particularly true for “inactive” ingredients that are added to enhance the effectiveness of the pesticide’s active ingredient and that may not be tested and are seldom disclosed on product labels. Moreover, the combination effects of exposure to multiple pesticides in food, water, soil and air have not been adequately studied.

Certain groups are at substantially higher risk of pesticide exposure, as detailed below.

Farmers and agricultural workers

Agricultural workers are routinely exposed to toxic pesticides via spray, drift or direct contact with treated crops or soil, from accidental spills or inadequate personal protective equipment. Even when following recommended safety precautions, those applying pesticides are subject to higher exposure levels. Families of agricultural workers are also vulnerable, as workers bring home pesticide residues on their skin, clothing and shoes.

Studies in developed countries show that annual acute pesticide poisoning affects nearly 1 in every 5,000 agricultural workers. Globally, however, it is unknown what percentage of farmworkers experience acute pesticide poisoning owing to a lack of standardized reporting. Poor enforcement of labour regulations and lack of health and safety training can elevate exposure risks, while many Governments lack the infrastructure and resources to regulate and monitor pesticides.

The exposure risk of children engaged in agricultural work is particularly alarming. Although little data are available, the International Labour Organization estimates that about 60 per cent of child labourers worldwide work in agriculture, and children often make up a substantial portion of the agricultural workforce in developing countries. Their increased sensitivity to the hazards of pesticides, the inadequacy of protective equipment and their lack of experience may leave them particularly exposed.

Seasonal and migrant workers are also more vulnerable, as they may work temporarily at various agricultural sites, multiplying their exposure risk to pesticides. Language barriers may further prevent these workers from understanding labels and safety warnings, they may experience poor working conditions without access to adequate safety equipment and they may have difficulty accessing medical care and compensation for pesticide-related diseases. Workers may also have little control over the types of pesticides used.

Communities living near agricultural lands

Those living close to industrial agricultural lands and plantations may also be at grave risk of pesticide exposure. Aerial pesticide spraying is particularly dangerous, as chemicals can drift to nearby locations. Communities may be forced to reside closer to pesticide use areas owing to financial or other constraints, and the malnutrition that may accompany extreme poverty can exacerbate the adverse health effects of toxic pesticides. For example, low levels of protein, resulting in low enzyme levels, enhance vulnerability to organophosphate insecticides.

Examples of exposure owing to proximity to plantations include Costa Rica, where children living close to banana plantations were found to be exposed to high levels of insecticides.19 In India, inhabitants of the Padre village in the State of Kerala, located near cashew plantations, were found to suffer from high rates of illness and death that have been linked to the highly hazardous pesticide endosulfan; disability rates among inhabitants are reportedly 73 per cent higher than the overall rates for the entire state.

During the 1970s, the pesticide DCBP was used extensively on banana and pineapple plantations around the world. In Davao, the Philippines, where the pesticide was used in the 1980s, high levels of sterility were scientifically proven to have resulted from exposure. Other conditions, including cancer, asthma, tuberculosis and skin disease were also detected, but a linkage was not scientifically proven. While local authorities banned aerial spraying following community protests, the Supreme Court of the Philippines reversed the ban, allegedly under pressure from banana corporations. Further, suits brought by plantation workers have been dismissed, leaving victims without compensation. Twenty years on, despite a global ban on DBCP, soils and water sources remain contaminated.

Indigenous communities

In various countries, agribusinesses have taken over lands belonging to indigenous and minority communities and instituted pesticide-dependent intensive agriculture. As a result, communities may be forced to live in marginal situations alongside such farms, regularly exposing them to pesticide drift.

Traditional food sources of indigenous peoples are regularly found to contain high levels of pesticides. This is also true in the Arctic, because chemicals travel northward through long-range environmental transport in wind and water, bioaccumulating and biomagnifying in traditional foods such as marine mammals and fish. Indigenous peoples in the Arctic are found to have hazardous pesticides in their bodies that were never used near their communities, and suffer from above average rates of cancer and other diseases.

Pregnant women and children

Children are most vulnerable to pesticide contamination, as their organs are still developing and, owing to their smaller size, they are exposed to a higher dose per unit of body weight; the levels and activity of key enzymes that detoxify pesticides are much lower in children than in adults. Health impacts linked to childhood exposure to pesticides include impaired intellectual development, adverse behavioural effects and other developmental abnormalities. Emerging research is revealing that exposure to even low levels of pesticides, for example through wind drift or residues on food, may be very damaging to children’s health, disrupting their mental and physiological growth and possibly leading to a lifetime of diseases and disorders.

Pregnant women who are exposed to pesticides are at higher risk of miscarriage, pre-term delivery and birth defects. Studies have regularly found a cocktail of pesticides in umbilical cords and first faeces of newborns, proving prenatal exposure. Exposure to pesticides can be transferred from either parent. The most critical period for exposure for the father is three months prior to conception, while maternal exposure is most dangerous from the month before conception through the first trimester of pregnancy. Recent evidence suggests that pesticide exposure by pregnant mothers leads to higher risk of childhood leukaemia and other cancers, autism and respiratory illnesses. For example, neurotoxic pesticides can cross the placental barrier and affect the developing nervous system of the fetus, while other toxic chemicals can adversely impact its undeveloped immune system.

Pesticides can also pass through breast milk. This is particularly worrying, as breast milk is the only source of food for many babies and their metabolism is not well developed to fight against hazardous chemicals. Pesticides are also found in baby formula, or in the water with which it is mixed.


Pesticide residues are commonly found in both plant and animal food sources, resulting in significant exposure risks for consumers. Studies indicate that foods often contain multiple residues, thereby resulting in the consumption of a “cocktail” of pesticides. Although the harmful effects of pesticide mixtures are still not fully understood, it is known that in some cases, synergistic interactions can occur that lead to higher toxicity levels. High cumulative exposure of consumers to pesticides is particularly worrying, especially with lipophilic pesticides, which bind with fats and bioaccumulate in the body.

Traces may remain on fruits and vegetables that are extensively treated with pesticides before they reach the consumer. The highest levels of pesticides are often found in legumes, leafy greens and fruits such as apples, strawberries and grapes. While washing and cooking produce reduces residue levels, food preparation can sometimes increase these levels. Also, many pesticides used today are systemic — taken up through the roots and distributed throughout the plant — and therefore washing will have no effect.

Pesticides may also bioaccumulate in farmed animals through contaminated feed. Insecticides are often used in poultry and eggs, while milk and other dairy products may contain a range of substances through bioaccumulation and storage in the fatty tissues of the animals. This is of particular concern as cow’s milk is often a staple component of human diets, especially for children.

Certain pesticides, such as organotins, accumulate and magnify through marine food web systems. As a result, people who depend on or consume greater amounts of seafood tend to have particularly high concentrations in their blood, causing significant health risks.

Pesticides also present a serious threat to drinking water, particularly in agricultural areas, which often depend on groundwater. While it can take several decades before pesticides applied in fields appear in water wells, high levels of herbicides in agricultural areas have already caused health problems for some communities. For example, in the United States of America, where over 70 million pounds of atrazine are used annually, runoff into water supplies has been linked to increased risk of birth defects. While atrazine was banned in the European Union in 2004, some European countries still detect it in groundwater today.

Environmental impact

Pesticides can persist in the environment for decades and pose a global threat to the entire ecological system upon which food production depends. Excessive use and misuse of pesticides result in contamination of surrounding soil and water sources, causing loss of biodiversity, destroying beneficial insect populations that act as natural enemies of pests and reducing the nutritional value of food.

Pesticides contaminate and degrade soil to varying degrees. In China, recent studies released by the Government show moderate to severe contamination from pesticides and other pollutants on 26 million hectares of farmland, to the extent that farming cannot continue on approximately 20 per cent of arable land.

Water contamination can be equally damaging. In Guatemala, for example, contamination of the Pasión River with the pesticide malathion, used on palm oil plantations, killed thousands of fish and affected 23 species of fish. This in turn deprived 12,000 people in 14 communities of their primary source of food and livelihood.

While regulators are mostly concerned about health risks through pesticide residues, their effects on non-target organisms are hugely underestimated. For example, neonicotinoids, a commonly used class of systemic insecticides, are causing soil degradation and water pollution and endangering vital ecosystem services such as biological pest control. 38 Designed to damage the central nervous system of target pests, they can also cause harm to beneficial invertebrates as well as to birds, butterflies and other wildlife.

Neonicotinoids are accused of being responsible for “colony collapse disorder” of bees worldwide. For example, heavy use of these insecticides has been blamed for the 50 per cent decline over 25 years in honeybee populations in both the United States and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. This decline threatens the very basis of agriculture, given that wild bees and managed honeybees play the greatest role in pollinating crops. According to estimates from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), of some 100 crop species (which provide 90 per cent of global food), 71 per cent are pollinated by bees. The European Union, unlike the United States, restricted the use of certain neonicotinoids in 2013.

Many of the pesticides used today, accounting for approximately 60 per cent of dietary exposure,are systemic. Seeds treated with systemic pesticides are commonly used in soybean, corn and peanut production. Similarly, crops may be genetically engineered (so-called GMOs) to produce pesticides themselves. Proponents of systemic pesticides and genetically engineered crops claim that by eliminating liquid spraying, the risk of exposure to farm workers and other non-target organisms is greatly reduced. However, further studies of chronic exposure are needed to determine the extent of the impact of systemic pesticides and genetically engineered crops on human health, beneficial insects, soil ecosystems and aquatic life.  For example, transgenic corn and soybean varieties have been developed that are capable of producing Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) endotoxins that act as insecticides.While the use of Bt crops has led to a reduction in conventional synthetic insecticide use, controversy remains about the possible risks posed by these crops.

The prime example of controversy around genetically engineered crops is glyphosate, the active ingredient of some herbicides, including Roundup, that allow farmers to kill weeds but not their crops. While presented as less toxic and persistent compared to traditional herbicides, there is considerable disagreement over the impact of glyphosate on the environment: studies have indicated negative impacts on biodiversity, wildlife and soil nutrient content. There are also concerns regarding human health. In 2015, WHO announced that glyphosate was a probable carcinogen.

In Europe, genetically engineered crop regulations exemplify the precautionary principle. If an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus, the burden of proof falls on those taking the action or policy to demonstrate that it is not harmful. In contrast, in the United States, the biggest producer of genetically engineered crops, regulations have generally followed the concept of “substantial equivalence”, whereby a novel crop or food is compared to an existing one and if judged adequately similar, it falls under existing regulations.49 Considering their probable grave effects on health and the environment, there is an urgent need for holistic regulation on the basis of the precautionary principle to address the genetically engineered production process and other new technologies at the global level.

Read and download the complete Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food A/HRC/34/48 on UN SPECIAL RAPPORTEUR On Human Rights & Toxics.

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