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Pesticides are highly regulated products used to protect crops during production and storage and for landscape management. They help ensure a safe and affordable supply of food by enhancing crop productivity and preventing pest damage, moulds and toxins. However, despite the many laws in place to ensure that approved pesticides are not harmful to human health and to minimise exposure during use, some academics, charities, and consumers are still concerned about the potential health effects from pesticide exposure.  

The Government and the devolved administrations aim to minimise the risks and impacts of pesticides on human health and the environment through the National Action Plan (NAP) for the Sustainable Use of Pesticides. An updated version is due to be finalised by the end of 2021. The draft NAP aims to develop targets by 2022 to reduce the risks associated with pesticide use. 

Key points: 

  • People can be exposed to pesticides in a variety of ways. They can be directly exposed whilst mixing or applying pesticides, either at work (often leading to the highest exposure levels, as more concentrated products are used) or at home (e.g., when using garden products). They can also be indirectly exposed to lower doses of pesticides through the environment (air, water, soil and dust) and through ingestion of pesticide residues in food and drink.  
  • Legal requirements for training and certification by professional applicators, pesticide storekeepers and people selling pesticides help ensure safe and sustainable use.  
  • Pesticides must go through a rigorous risk assessment process for approval, requiring a large suite of tests. Companies must prove no harmful effects on human health and no unacceptable effects on the environment for substances to be approved. Assessments will specifically consider the risks to more susceptible groups that could have higher exposure levels, such as children, those working with pesticides, and those living or walking near pesticide-treated areas. Once pesticides are approved, legal limits will also be set for the maximum amount of pesticide residue allowed in foods (known as maximum residue levels). 
  • Adverse health impacts from pesticides depend on the toxicity of the substance; dose (amount) of exposure; duration and frequency of exposure; route of body entry (skin contact, ingestion, or inhalation); and personal vulnerability. 
  • Acute exposure to high doses of pesticides might result in poisoning. Most cases of acute exposures reported in the UK were unintentional and resulted in little harm. These occurred mostly from exposure to non-professional products in the home. 
  • No causal relationships between pesticide exposure and chronic health impacts have yet been proven. The research in this area is highly inconclusive, and the topic is difficult to research. As people are exposed to a wide range of chemicals every day, it is difficult quantify exact exposure levels, find control populations for comparisons and associate a specific adverse health effect with an individual pesticide. Additionally, there are other confounding variables that can influence health, such as lifestyle factors (e.g., exercise and diet). 
  • UK surveillance programmes track pesticide exposures and assess potential health risks from poisonings, for occupational users and from residues in food and drinks. 
  • After EU withdrawal, the nations of Great Britain (i.e. England, Wales, and Scotland) make independent decisions on pesticide approvals. Northern Ireland complies with EU law. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is the regulatory authority for the whole UK that reviews new pesticide applications, ensures safe use of pesticides and oversees monitoring and surveillance programmes. Some stakeholders are concerned that different decisions from the EU and within UK nations could bring regulatory challenges, complicate trade and potentially affect farmers’ access to pesticides.  

 

Acknowledgements 

POSTnotes are based on literature reviews and interviews with a range of stakeholders and are externally peer reviewed. POST would like to thank interviewees and peer reviewers for kindly giving up their time during the preparation of this briefing, including: 

  • Chemicals Regulation Division, Health and Safety Executive* 
  • Dr Anne-Helen Harding and Gillian Frost*, Health and Safety Executive Science and Research Centre 
  • Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs* 
  • Department for International Trade* 
  • Prof William Cushley, Prof Dave Spurgeon, Prof Ted Lock*, Dr Caroline Harris; Dr Martin Rose*, Dr Martin Hare* , and Mr Martin Glynn*, UK Expert Committee on Pesticides (ECP) 
  • Ann Davison, Dr Jonathan Blackman, and Dr Gill Hart; Expert Committee on Pesticide Residues in Food (PRiF)* 
  • Public Health England, Toxicology Department* 
  • Scottish Government* 
  • Department of Agriculture, Environment & Rural Affairs Northern Ireland (DAERA) 
  • Prof Sir Ian Boyd, University of St. Andrews 
  • Prof Guy Poppy, University of Southampton 
  • Prof Alan Boobis*, Imperial College London and Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment  
  • Prof David Coggon*, University of Southampton 
  • Dr John Reade, Harper Adams University 
  • Dr Robin Mesnage*, Kings College London 
  • Dr Sara Adela Abad Guaman, University College London 
  • Dr Lindsay Jaacks, The University of Edinburgh 
  • Prof Michael Eddleston*, The University of Edinburgh 
  • Dr Emily Lydgate, University of Sussex 
  • Chloe Anthony, University of Sussex 
  • Dr Joseph Hubert Galani Yamdeu, University of Leeds 
  • Dr Sarah Judge, Newcastle University 
  • Dr Rachel Ward*, Institute of Food Science & Technology 
  • Ainsley Jones, Fera 
  • Stephen Jacob, BASIS 
  • James Clarke, ADAS 
  • National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) 
  • Joe Martin and Amandeep Kaur Purewal, Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) 
  • Dave Bench, Crop Protection Association 
  • Keneth Chinyama, Food and Drink Federation 
  • Hazel Doonan*, Agricultural Industries Confederation 
  • Liz Bowles and Jerry Alford, Soil Association 
  • Chris Hartfield*, National Farmers’ Union (NFU) 
  • Pesticide Action Network UK* 
  • Ralph Early, Food Ethics Council 
  • Steven Jacobs, Organic Farmers & Growers 
  • Jyoti Fernandes, Landworkers’ Alliance 
  • Martin Lines, Nature Friendly Farming Network 
  • Francisco Javier Dominguez Orive, European Commission
  • Jonathan Finlay, House of Commons Library 
  • Members of the POST Board* 

* denotes people and organisations who acted as external reviewers of the briefing.  


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