The pesticide hazard: What are the risks?

These substances contribute to the production of our food, but they can be dangerous. What should be remembered? Explanations by Pr Xavier Coumoul.

Paris Match. What exactly does the term “pesticide” cover?
Professor Xavier Coumoul. A set of molecules used to destroy, repel or control the action of various organisms considered by users to be harmful. This includes insecticides (against disease-carrying mosquitoes), herbicides (against weeds), fungicides (against molds), parasiticides (against parasites), etc. Many are used, in agriculture (spreading), to care for and protect plants, in the short term. In the long term, due to their own toxicity, they can impact the biodiversity of ecosystems and harm health. The Federal Consumers’ Union recently made public the results of 14,000 official controls carried out by the National Health Security Agency (ANSES) which show that half of the foods, especially fruits, vegetables and cereals, contain pesticides. , of which no less than 150 are suspected of being carcinogenic or of acting as endocrine disruptors; 10% of the population consumes, at certain times of the year, tap water with chemical residues, which does not comply with the regulations. Serious risk assessment calls for bringing together: 1. Expologists who measure exposure to a given pesticide in real conditions. 2. Epidemiologists to search human populations for associations between a given substance and a disease. 3. Toxicologists to specify risk thresholds. Only the sum of these skills makes it possible to define a strong link, even a causality. This was Inserm’s approach via two major expert reports published in 2013 and 2021.

What did the last expertise consist of?
Compiled over 5,300 international studies. The work focused on a large number of pathologies and targeted farmers, residents of agricultural areas and vulnerable populations (children and pregnant women). Occupationally exposed populations, in contact with high levels of pesticides whose frequency and intensity of use can be known, are the most informative. Several strong presumptions have been established, in particular a link between chlordecone (used against the banana weevil) and prostate cancer, between organophosphate products and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and/or the occurrence of cognitive disorders, as well as between various pesticides and pathologies as varied as Parkinson’s disease, myeloma and certain chronic lung diseases. In children who may have been exposed in utero or in their environment, strong presumptions of links with leukemia, nervous system tumors and neuropsychological development disorders have been observed!

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I recommend to prefer organic food, to wash the vegetables and to peel the fruits

What about the toxic risk for the general population?
The permitted standards for each individual pesticide and each food product are rarely exceeded. But this is misleading, because in environmental reality there are always mixtures. Assessing this danger given the infinite number of mixtures is impossible. For example, an apple tree receives about thirty treatments per year. Five to ten pesticides will remain on the skin of the apple, which can have a potentially dangerous synergistic and cumulative effect. Some pesticides, called systemic, can penetrate the flesh of a fruit. Others, like chlordecone, contaminate the soil, water, the environment, but not the banana itself. It is the farmer and the inhabitants of the area who are then threatened.

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Also read. Reduction of pesticides: the Nicolas-Hulot Foundation criticizes the lack of means

What to do then?
I recommend limiting the domestic use of pesticides (especially if you have children), not treating vegetable gardens (except with organic products), preferring organic food, which is very controlled (synthetic pesticides for this mode of production are prohibited), to buy fresh and to consume seasonal products (the need for pesticides is then reduced), to wash the vegetables, to peel the fruits, finally to vary the products which one eats so as not to concentrate the toxins. 

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