New research from University of Iowa has some sobering findings on the impacts of exposure to pyrethroids. The study found that people with the highest exposure to the widely used pesticides were three times more likely to die from cardiovascular disease — and 56% more likely to die from any cause within the study's follow-up period — than those with low or no exposure.
Pyrethroids are the second most popular class of insecticides used in the world, with people mainly exposed through residues on food (such as fruits and vegetables) and through dust in homes when these pesticides are used indoors.
A common danger
In a cycle that has been repeated for decades, this class of pesticides was touted as a much “safer” alternative when it was introduced. These findings are especially worrying because of the correlation identified between exposure to pyrethroids and death. Also concerning? In addition to widespread commercial agricultural use, pyrethroids constitute the majority of household insecticide use as well.
Which means exposure is likely very widespread.
Though this study did not measure how subjects were exposed to pyrethroids, the study’s lead author, Wei Bao, says that previous studies suggest the majority of pyrethroid exposures are through food. Additional exposure is possible through residential use of pyrethroids to control pests in homes, yards, and gardens.
Who’s most at risk?
Bao’s study draws from a nationally representative sample of U.S. adults. Researchers measured exposure to two common pyrethroids via breakdown products in human urine samples collected between 1999 and 2002 by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), a program of Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
The fact that this study draws from a national sample of adults means Bao’s findings are relevant to all of us. We don’t know, however, how pyrethroid exposure could differentially impact populations such as farmers, agricultural workers and their communities, or children. Further, the results of this study indicate a link, but additional research is needed to replicate findings and further investigate exposure outcomes within various populations.
Though we look forward to additional studies detailing the link between pyrethroids exposure and health, we also know we don’t need to wait to end chemical intensive agriculture.
We already know the health and economic burdens of pesticide use disproportionately fall to farmers, farmworkers and rural communities. Thankfully, farmers and workers are already using innovative agroecological production systems to raise crops without the use of dangerous insecticides.
Bao’s study is more fuel for PAN and our partners to continue to grow our movements by tackling the pesticide problem alongside farmers, and ensuring transitions to a just and viable food system.