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Pesticides under fire

Government cancer advisers are calling for more information on occupational exposure of farm workers to agricultural chemicals.

Government cancer advisers are calling for more information on occupational exposure of farmers and farm workers to agricultural chemicals. This follows revelations from the committee that pesticides, particularly weed-killers, might cause prostate cancer.

Friends of the Earth also pointed out that while workers wore protective gear for spraying, many who lived near fields being treated, including children, did not. There was far too little information on this risk too, it said.

The Department of Health's advisory committee has been reviewing reasons for a huge increase in prostate cancer over the past 20 years. Farm working was the only possible job-related link to prostate cancer to which any endorsement was given. Experts on pesticide safety, reporting to Defra, the environment department, will consider what steps to take at a meeting this week. But officials said that it would be extremely difficult to estimate exposure to the chemicals.

Prostate cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed in men in Britain with 27,000 new cases a year, with a lifetime risk of one in 13. There are nearly 9,950 deaths but survival rates are improving.

In a statement on its website, the committee discounted large-scale environmental factors since a study of geographical incidence of prostate cancer in the UK found no significant differences. But the committee concluded, after studying a number of research papers, including in the US and Canada, ìthere was some evidence to suggest an association between farmers and farm workers, exposure to pesticides and increased risk of prostate cancerî.

While not suggesting any new government research into the issue, members said the ìpotential associationî should be kept under review and commented ìon the need for improved measures of exposure to pesticides and particularly herbicidesî.

Employers must put their workers under surveillance if there is a danger that an identifiable disease or risk to health may be related to exposure to chemicals and valid techniques existed for detecting indications of the disease.

The guidance from the Pesticide Safety Directorate, part of Defra, also suggests that in practice the pesticides to which these are most likely to apply are those that can cause skin disorders and organophosphorus products.

2nd September 2008

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