The World Health Organization reported in 2015 that the common herbicide glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup, was “probably” carcinogenic to humans, and despite recent conflicting evidence, it turns out that’s not the only reason we should be staying away from the chemical.
A recent study found that workers exposed to herbicides like glyphosate as well as pesticides like neonicotinoids (which most experts agree are a major contributing factor to the lack of bees these days) are leading to agricultural workers developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), bronchitis, and other breathing problems. COPD currently affects more than 65 million people worldwide and causes about 5 percent of all deaths.
An Australian study published this summer in the medical journal Thorax found that people who were exposed to herbicides at work were more than twice as likely to develop COPD by middle age and those exposed to pesticides were 74 percent more likely, with each ten-year increase in occupational exposure to these chemicals contributing up to a whopping 22 percent increased risk of chronic lung disease in some form.
“Our study looked at long-term exposure to pesticides, and it is thought that long-term exposure to pesticides increases mucus secretion and muscle contraction in the lungs, causing breathlessness, cough and wheeze,” lead study author Dr. Sheikh Alif of the University of Melbourne told Reuters.
A large proportion of people using pesticides and herbicides in their occupations are farm workers, but Jim Ferraro, leading environmental attorney and author of the book Blindsided, notes that it’s important to remember the possible effects on other occupations as well, such as those who work at golf courses.
“They work with a variety of chemicals and pesticides and insecticides, and the incidence of a variety of cancers and conditions is way off the chart for those people,” he says.
Ferraro notes that this research is not news to those close to the industry.
“None of it surprises me at all,” he says. “There's no question that herbicides, insecticides, pesticides, and fungicides are causing damage to people's lungs. And way beyond that, too.”
So why are we only hearing about it now?
As we recently learned with the Monsanto papers (which revealed that Monsanto knew about and hid the dangers of glyphosate), large agrochemical companies are often able to shield the public from knowledge about the health hazards linked to their products. But another key reason is the sheer amount of time it takes for these diseases to develop: often several years or even several decades, which means that it may only be a matter of time before more evidence emerges regarding the dangers of these chemicals.
In the meantime, evidence not only of the link to lung disease but also to acute poisoning – which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported is 37 times more likely to affect agricultural workers than those in another industry – seems like more than enough for us to opt out of these agrochemicals, for good.
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