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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Pesticides & Prostate

Air Date: Week of

Lawn chemicals, weed killers and other pesticides may be possible causes of cancer. That’s the initial findings from a health advisory panel in Britain, which reviewed a number of scientific studies on prostate cancer. Host Steve Curwood talks with David Forman, a researcher at the Universtiy of Leeds in England and a member of the British panel, about its results.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Coming up: archeology for the body and mind. But first:

Health officials in Britain are voicing concern over chemical weed-killers and pesticides as possible causes of cancer of the prostate. The disease is the second leading cause of cancer-related death among men in the U.K. and U.S., claiming about 40,000 victims a year.

Professor David Forman is a researcher in cancer epidemiology at the University of Leeds in England and a member of the British health advisory panel that found enough evidence to suggest a link between prostate cancer and exposure to pesticides, especially among farm workers.

FORMAN: The committee reviewed a large body of literature on this topic and came away with the conclusion that there was evidence that there was a significant excess of prostate cancer in farm workers who have been exposed to pesticides during the course of their employment. I should say that that evidence was not absolutely decisive but, nevertheless, the studies did seem to point all in the same direction.

CURWOOD: What can they do to protect themselves, these farm workers?

FORMAN: Well, in general it's a matter of really taking notice of the health and safety advice that is given, especially when it comes to chemicals which might have toxic properties. So, wearing appropriate protective clothing, using face masks where necessary, and really making sure that the exposure experience is kept to the absolute minimum.

CURWOOD: Now, what about men who aren't farm workers but occasionally use household weed-killers and pesticides. How vulnerable are they to getting prostate cancer from their exposure to pesticides?

FORMAN: Well, that's a good question because, on the one hand, obviously such people who might use similar compounds in and around the home would usually be associated with much lower levels of exposure because it might just be on an occasional weekend day that they make use of such chemicals. However - and it's quite a big however - people who use such chemicals domestically won't have any accompanying health and safety legislation surrounding that use, and might, therefore, pay less attention to health and safety warnings. So, there is a concern that the exposure might increase as a result of not wearing appropriate protective wear or face masks and so on.

CURWOOD: Now, you're committee has called for new ways to measure exposures to pesticides, herbicides, those kind of chemicals. What do you envision here? And how do you believe it can be put into practice?

FORMAN: Well, one of the big problems in this whole area of science and cancer epidemiology, in general, is getting really good assessments of exposure to specific agents. Really the measures that we've used thus far tend to be very crude. So, what the committee is really asking for is better levels of exposure which, in part is making better use and better employment or occupational records so that one knows within a workforce exactly what chemicals an individual has been exposed to of his lifetime. But, added to that, what is coming rapidly onto the scene is a new generation of biological markers that can be assessed either by looking at blood samples or, in some cases, DNA samples of individuals which can give very informative information on the type of chemicals that that individual has been exposed to.

CURWOOD: So, where do you go from here in terms of policy? What sort of policy decisions to you hope, do you expect, to arise from your committee's decision here?

FORMAN: It really lays down a concern that other agencies within government will have to take up, both in terms of trying to understand in more detail whether there genuinely is an association and also how one can reduce exposure to pesticides amongst exposed groups of workers. It's a cause for concern and we need to keep a close eye on it.

CURWOOD: David Forman is a professor of cancer epidemiology at the University of Leeds and a member of the Committee on Carcinogenicity, an advisory panel to the British Department of Health. Thanks for taking this time with me today.

FORMAN: Thank you very much.

[MUSIC: The Beatles “Here Comes the Sun" Abby Road (EMI) 1969]



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