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Monitoring pesticide use and alternatives

Part of Agriculture Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:15 pm on 5th March 2020.

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Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Labour, Cambridge 3:15 pm, 5th March 2020

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Picture this: it is a lovely sunny day and everyone is outside. Kids are playing in the park, with their mums and dads looking on. What we do not often think about when we picture these happy scenarios, because we do not look for them, are herbicides, fungicides and insecticides. They may well be blowing in on spores and from nearby crops or, more directly, kids may be playing on grass in a park that has been treated with pesticides or weed-killing chemicals.

Quite rightly, we are now being told every day because of coronavirus that we need to wash our hands and not touch our mouths, eyes or nose. In more usual times, we are perhaps a bit more slack about possible transference of dangerous substances into our bodies—and these substances can be dangerous. A selection of the labels on pesticide products used in the UK contains warnings such as “Very toxic by inhalation”, “Do not breathe spray/fumes/vapour”, “Risk of serious damage to eyes”, “Harmful: possible risk of irreversible effects through inhalation”, “May cause cancer by inhalation”, and even “May be fatal if inhaled.” Cornell University’s work on pesticides points to the risk of deformities, mutations, cancer and poisoning of the nervous system. These are dangerous chemicals, and we need to keep a close eye on their impact.

Children and pregnant mothers are more exposed to the potential impact of pesticides than most of us, because they have a higher exposure rate. Children absorb pesticides more easily through their skin: not only is a child’s skin more permeable than an adult’s, but their skin surface area is higher relative to their body weight. That makes it easier for them to absorb higher rates of pesticides; in fact, infants will absorb around three times more pesticides than adults from similar exposure episodes. Children take in more air, water and food than adults relative to their body weight, which also increases their exposure. As an example, the breathing rate of a child in its first 12 years is roughly double that of an adult, and as a result the amount of airborne contaminants reaching the surface of the lung can be much higher.

Not only is exposure likely to be higher, but that child’s ability to cope with pesticide poisoning will differ from that of an adult. The systems in our bodies used to deal with toxins are less well developed in children, which can make them less able to cope with such substances than adults. As they grow, children’s brains and bodies undergo complex changes that affect tissue growth and organ development. Incidents of exposure that would be tolerated by adults can cause irreversible damage to unborn babies, infants and adolescents. What is worrying about this Bill is that not only does it completely omit any requirement for the protection of human health and the environment from pesticides, but it does not make a single recommendation for simply monitoring pesticides or their effects.