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Updated on 03/08/2016

Pesticide exposure of users and agricultural workers

ANSES’s work

Keywords : Pesticides, Personal protection equipment (PPE), Work, Plant protection products

Ever since its inception, ANSES has been concerned about the issue of pesticide exposure of users and agricultural workers. It therefore issued an internal request, to characterise the types of exposure giving rise to a risk in order to propose targeted and proportionate measures to reduce them. The Agency also launched an assessment of the effectiveness of personal protective equipment worn by users, so as to propose improvements in its recommendations on the subject. Below is an overview of the work carried out by the Agency.

The methods for using and evaluating pesticides, mainly plant protection products and biocides, are governed by European regulations. In this regard, plant protection preparations, the active substances they contain and the uses of pesticides available on the market are re-assessed to take into account progress in scientific knowledge, with a view to improving safety. As a result of this, in 20 years, the number of authorised active substances has declined considerably and almost 75% of the compounds authorised 20 years ago have since then had their authorisation withdrawn. Before they can be placed on the market, plant protection products and biocidal products in particular, are subject to a scientific evaluation of their claimed efficacy and risks for users, agricultural workers, amateur gardeners, bystanders, consumers, natural environments (soil, air, water) and living organisms (soil microorganisms, fauna and flora).

Despite this, epidemiological studies conducted in populations of farm workers show a relationship, with varying levels of certainty, between exposure to pesticides and certain chronic diseases. However, these studies also highlight the difficulties in relating effects to exposure in most cases, given, among other factors, the multitude of substances that may have been used, some of which have since been prohibited, and the lack of historical data on farm worker exposure. As one of its earliest initiatives, ANSES issued an internal request to examine the issue of pesticide exposure for users and farm workers with regard to two issues: retrospective risk assessment for workers, and, in parallel, personal protective equipment (PPE) for users.

Retrospective assessment of farm worker exposure

The objective is to identify and characterise exposure of agricultural workers to pesticides entailing a risk, in order to propose targeted and proportionate mitigation measures. To achieve this objective, which is consistent with the specific actions laid out in the French National Action Plans on Environment & Health (2009-2013), Occupational Health (2010-2014) and Ecophyto 2018, the internal request focused on four issues:

  • characterise the categories of farm workers potentially exposed to pesticides in relation with the different agricultural production systems affecting specific agricultural tasks and the resulting exposures.
  • identify and describe the occupational situations responsible for direct and indirect exposure (treatment residues in the treated areas).
  • collect and analyse the available knowledge on exposure levels for these situations.
  • correlate exposure data with health data.

The work relating to this expert appraisal was published in July 2016. In its conclusions, the Agency reiterates the explicit objective of the French Labour Code, which is to avoid risks, in particular by removing the hazards to which workers are exposed. In this regard, decreasing pesticide use is an objective in itself aimed at reducing exposure of agricultural workers to these substances.

In particular, the Agency recommends:

  • Continuing work at European level to harmonise and regularly develop a priori exposure and risk assessment methods as part of the marketing authorisation procedures for substances whose examination may depend on different regulations, depending on their uses.
  • Continuing work to improve knowledge of the effectiveness of protective equipment, which must be compatible with the activity of people working in agriculture.
  • In an independent framework, strengthening advice and training actions for pesticide users, in particular on the hazards, risks and safety of use. Certain exposure situations concerning sensitive or vulnerable populations, exposure when re-entering treated areas, or uses in the overseas territories, for example, require special efforts.

Lastly, in a context where the data available today are often in short supply, the Agency recommends improving understanding of exposure of agricultural workers to pesticides:

  • By strengthening the description of actual exposure situations in order to consolidate risk assessments or epidemiological studies, and also to assess the effectiveness of the recommended preventive measures
  • By strengthening the work on knowledge of exposure to mixtures of pesticides
  • By improving the accessibility, pooling, exploitation and capitalisation of information relating to pesticides, especially that concerning the exposure of people working in agriculture. 


Effectiveness of personal protective equipment

When examining marketing authorisation (MA) applications for plant protection products, ANSES in particular assesses the risk associated with the use of these products for the applicator. According to the general principles of the French Labour Code, the priority preventive measures consist in removing the hazard at the source or substituting hazardous products (in particular carcinogenic, mutagenic and reprotoxic (CMR) products). Then, when possible, collective preventive measures and adaptation of the work station are required. However, sometimes the risk is only acceptable in terms of the regulations in force when wearing clothing and/or personal protective equipment (PPE), for example gloves and protective work clothing during solution preparation and/or application.

It should also be noted that manufacturers are systematically asked to provide, in their applications for marketing authorisation of a plant protection product, precise information on the types of PPE and/or work clothing they consider appropriate for the protection of workers and operators. On this basis, the Agency examines the applications and specifies in its opinions the PPE and/or protective clothing required.

In this context, ANSES issued an internal request in order to make an inventory of the clothing and PPE for agricultural use available on the French market, and then to analyse their effectiveness when worn by applicators of plant protection products. The goal of this work was to enable improvements in the Agency's recommendations on the protection of agricultural workers to be proposed. This objective is also a major focus of the Ecophyto 2018 plan. This work took place in two phases:

  • characterisation of the equipment on the market, with the help of a survey of equipment distributors and equipment available on the internet,
  • a description of farming practices and the protective equipment actually worn by farm workers in the field.

For this purpose, an agreement was signed in 2012 with the National Research Institute of Science and Technology for Environment and Agriculture (IRSTEA) in order to conduct this study. On this basis, equipment performance was then characterised.

The Agency's work shows that there is a rather diversified range of work clothing and PPE available on the French market, enabling solutions adapted to many exposure situations to be offered in the distribution channels for the agricultural sector, and offering a high level of performance, both in terms of penetration and permeation. However, PPE is not always wornby applicators during work phases in which it is nevertheless a condition of the marketing authorisation for the products used. In addition, the coveralls certified as PPE, which offer variable performances in terms of permeation (high performance for type 3), provide a level of comfort deemed mediocre, poor or very poor by farmers, and are unsuited to the constraints inherent to certain activities. In comparison, tunic-type partial PPE provides effective protection, is comfortable and is suitable for certain activities. Applicators usually wear work clothing such as cotton or cotton/polyester blend coveralls, which provide high mechanical resistance and are better tolerated when subjected to water stress. This type of clothing is not currently covered by a standard or by certification and thus cannot be considered as protective clothing under the definition in Directive 89/686/EEC, also known as the PPE Directive.

In light of the information provided, the Agency recommends:

  • continuing the standardisation work at European level, so as to achieve the systematic certification of work clothing and PPE used for the protection from occupational exposure to plant protection products, including work coveralls, which are widely used and play a valuable role in protecting applicators.
  • asking PPE manufacturers, alongside the CE certification of their equipment, to provide all information relevant to userson the performance of their equipment depending on the use, and on the best practices to be observed regarding care of this equipment (washing, storage, reuse, etc.).
  • for each product submitted for authorisation, the requirement for the applicant to provide results of tests on the PPE that they are recommending, conducted with their product according to the harmonised standards available, or to justify an extrapolation from existing results obtained on products with similar characteristics.
  • adapting the choice of personal protective equipment to the risks involved, and the activity to be performed.

Lastly, while progress has been made in terms of making farmers more aware of the importance of protecting themselves from exposure to products, especially through Certiphyto training, significant efforts remain to be made towards this target. ANSES recommends that new initiatives be taken to raise awareness among farmers of the health issues. It recommends the adoption and widespread distribution of good practice guides for each sector.