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Do agricultural chemicals cause skin cancer?

31 August 2010

It is unlikely, despite recent research considering this issue. The findings from a US study were widely reported as indicating that workers who apply certain pesticides are twice as likely as the general population to contract melanoma, a lethal form of skin cancer. This conclusion was reported despite the researchers finding a lack of clear evidence concerning pesticides generally. The researchers, accordingly, found that while ongoing research is appropriate, there is no need for any particular action to reduce the risk of melanoma associated with pesticides.

More information

The study ‘Pesticide use and cutaneous melanoma in pesticide applicators in the Agricultural Health Study (external site)’ by LK Dennis, CF Lynch, DP Sandler and MC Alavanja was recently published online in Environmental Health Perspectives. On 13 March 2010 Environmental Health News, a publication of the science communication foundation Environment Health Science, published its summary of the study (external site). This report concluded the study found that ‘workers who apply certain pesticides to farm fields are twice as likely to contract melanoma, a deadly form of skin cancer’. It went on to say that ‘researchers identified six pesticides that, with repeated exposure, doubled the risk of skin cancer among farmers and other workers who applied them to crops.’

Environmental Health News, however, overstated the study’s findings. The researchers themselves did not make the definite conclusions reported of them in the independent summary.

For example, the study was set up to test two hypotheses:

  • That pesticides generally have been associated with causation of dermatitis, implicating toxic injury to epidermal melanocytes (the precursor of melanoma) and therefore contributing to the genesis of melanoma.
  • That consequent upon contamination of potable water in parts of the world with naturally occurring arsenic, exposure to arsenic increases the risk of skin cancer inter alia; and so arsenic containing pesticides may interact with sunlight to increase risks of skin cancer.

Neither of these hypotheses were supported by the study. None of the four specific chemicals identified as being associated with increased risk of melanoma - maneb, mancozeb, methyl-parathion and carbaryl - have previously been associated with melanoma. Given the strong positive association between sun exposure and melanoma, the authors could not rule out that pesticide specific results were driven by sun exposure. It was for this reason their only recommendation was that ‘our study suggests more research is needed’.

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Last updated on 31 August, 2010