28/07/2016 4 min

Publication of the report on occupational exposure to pesticides: a need for better understanding and a reduction in exposure

In France, more than a million professionals in the agricultural sector are potentially exposed to pesticides. In 2011, ANSES issued an internal request to conduct a collective expert appraisal aiming to identify, assess and characterise the exposure of agricultural workers to pesticides. In the opinion it has published, ANSES recommends decreasing exposure by reducing the use of pesticides, and issues various preventive measures. In addition, the Agency recommends improving understanding of exposure in actual conditions of use, in a context where the data available today are often in short supply.

In France, there is a large population of people working in agriculture and potentially exposed to pesticides. In 2010, over a million people were working regularly in agriculture, to which should be added several hundred thousand non-permanent workers and tens of thousands of trainees. In addition, such exposure can also affect the families of the professionals concerned, as well as residents in areas where pesticides are used.

Besides the impact on the environment, reducing the use of pesticides in agriculture is of particular importance because of the health issues, mainly occupational health.

Many epidemiological studies have shown an association between exposure to pesticides and certain chronic pathologies. The collective expert appraisal by Inserm, published in 2013, highlighted excess risks for different diseases, including some cancers (haematologic malignancies, prostate cancers, brain tumours, skin cancers, etc.), some neurological diseases (Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, cognitive disorders, etc.), and some reproductive and development disorders, related to exposure to different pesticides or classes of pesticides, with levels of presumption ranging from low to high depending on the cases.

In this context, ANSES issued an internal request in 2011 to conduct a collective expert appraisal aiming to identify, assess and characterise the exposure of agricultural workers to pesticides, in order to propose measures of reduction and prevention. The term pesticide encompasses plant protection products, biocides and certain veterinary medicinal products (mainly antiparasitics).

The findings

The Agency's conclusions confirm the lack of data relating to pesticide exposure of people working in agriculture. In addition, the centralisation, accessibility and exploitation of all the data currently seem insufficient. Indeed, the national plans, the information available in the literature, and the recent collective expert appraisal by Inserm on the health effects of pesticides, unanimously testify to the lack of data on exposure of agricultural workers in France to pesticides.

Risk prevention policies are largely focused on a few material determinants of exposure relating to the individual behaviour of people at work: hygiene measures and wearing of personal protective equipment. According to the general principles of prevention in occupational health, these measures should only be used as a last resort after substitution, and implementation of collective protective measures, relating for example to the organisation of work.

In addition, the means devoted to independent advice on prevention are insufficient, and the accessibility of alternatives for reducing pesticide use and the option of benefiting from adequate advice on limiting exposure are surrounded by difficulties. The occupational health concerns relating to the exposure of agricultural workers to pesticides are taken into account in a very heterogeneous and sometimes reduced manner in the initial training intended for the people concerned. Training and advice on pesticide use do not therefore sufficiently raise awareness of the issue.

It also seems necessary to continue the work and actions undertaken with a view to harmonising and developing the assessment of risks and exposure in the procedure for placing pesticides on the market.
Lastly, improving the readability of the applicable regulations would strengthen their effectiveness and promote the involvement of the different players.

The Agency's recommendations

In the light of these findings, ANSES is issuing recommendations that apply to all those concerned by the prevention of risks to agricultural workers exposed to pesticides.

To begin with, 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;
  • improving knowledge on 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.

Publication of these results, originally planned for June, was postponed due to the late receipt by the Agency of a note stating a minority view from two experts from the working group that conducted this expert appraisal. This situation, which had never previously occurred and was not provided for in ANSES's collective expert appraisal procedures, led to a formal request being made to ANSES’s Committee for Ethical Standards and Prevention of Conflicts of Interest on how to take this note into account. The Ethics Committee issued its opinion and made recommendations, all of which were taken into account by the Agency, now enabling publication of the results of the expert appraisal.