Farm workers in Texas may be at higher risk for brain cancer

According to recent reports, brain cancer risks increase with heavy exposure to pesticides. That’s alarming news for states with large agricultural industries, such as Texas, which not only employs millions of legal and illegal workers each year, but also has more than 25% of the population without health insurance.

The French researcher, Dr. Isabelle Baldi, and colleagues from the University of Bordeaux compared 221 adult brain cancer patients with 442 similarly profiled members of the general population without cancer. The study found that “agricultural workers with the highest level of pesticide exposure are twice as likely to be diagnosed with brain cancer as those who have no occupational exposure to pesticides.”

Baldi’s study focused on France’s famed Bordeaux region, which has one of the highest brain cancer rates in the world. While she was unable to disclose details of what pesticides were used, the region, with its significant vineyards, uses large amounts of fungicides.

According to an article in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine, gliomas, a type of tumor associated with brain cancer, are three times more likely to develop in exposed workers than in workers without exposure to pesticides.

The study was also the first to provide statistically relevant data suggesting that those who treated their houseplants with pesticides also had a higher risk of brain cancer. Again, the cancer risk was about double, compared to those who never used pesticides. Baldi cautioned that further research was needed to confirm this link, as there were no controls on pesticide levels and reporting bias.

Previous research by other scientists found that exposure to pesticides in farmers was linked to adverse effects on the brain, including Parkinson’s disease.

All of this only fuels the debate over organic versus conventionally grown foods, which is as hot a topic in Texas as anywhere else in the country. Recent reports that the average conventional crop contains 13% less nutrients than the same crop produced a few decades ago also seem to add to the pile of evidence in favor of organic systems.

No one in Texas is immune to the risks these products pose. The state already has 13 fatal injuries per 100,000 farm workers, which is twice as many as all workers in Texas. However, it can take years for chronic disease and cancer to develop. Given that pesticide use in agriculture has skyrocketed in recent decades, the prevalence of brain cancer – and that of other brain disorders linked to these pesticides – could skyrocket in the coming years. Such a surge could cripple an already dangerously strained state health care system, especially when a quarter of all residents are uninsured. And if Baldi’s preliminary findings about the cancer risk associated with pesticide use in the home prove correct, then everyone, including residents of cities like Dallas, Houston and Austin, is at risk.

The ripple effect in healthcare alone may be cause for concern. If an already overburdened system administers necessary, expensive and time-consuming treatments to uninsured patients with brain cancer, along with treating the rest of the condition — with its usual high rates of chronic disease, such as diabetes, hypertension and other cancers — then those those in need of care across the state are feeling the effects of limited resources. There are only a limited number of doctors, nurses and other health professionals to go around; there is only so much public funding. Even longer waiting times for people with such serious illnesses can be fatal. And sadly, this year was a pivotal year in proving the ineffectiveness of our public system; the Commonwealth Fund only confirmed last month that the lack of health insurance is linked to poorer quality of care in the United States.

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So what do we do? First of all, limit unnecessary use of pesticides, whether you are a farmer, a farm worker or a green pollinator. Look for alternatives that are easy to find in health food stores and health food stores. Write pesticide companies and your congressional representatives; express your concerns and let them know that serious investigation is necessary on this point. Information is the greatest opportunity we have to protect ourselves and our children. Although Baldi’s research was conducted in France, many of the same or similar pesticides are used in several countries, including ours. If we see through the dangers now and cut them off, we may be able to literally save thousands or even millions of lives.

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