RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Pesticides are a real buzz-kill when it comes to men's below-the-belt health. Mounting research shows certain bug, fungus, and weed killers wreak havoc on guys' hormonal systems, with some chemicals escalating male cancer risk while others sink sperm counts. A new study out of University of Southern California finds certain chemicals used to grow our food even increase the risk of prostate cancer.
"This is fairly compelling evidence that a number of chemicals widely used in the agricultural industry are strongly associated with prostate cancer occurrence," explains Myles Cockburn, PhD, assistant professor of research USC's department of preventive medicine. "This tends to imply that our efforts to limit the dissemination of pesticide residuals into 'the environment' are ineffective." That is, he says, while most of these chemicals are regulated to prevent groundwater contamination and airborne spread, this study implies that people are nevertheless being exposed, and at levels sufficient to cause harm.
THE DETAILS: Cockburn's study found that different pesticides pose risks to men's health, and you don't have to live on a farm to be exposed. "The most likely answer is that there is a complex interplay between genes and environment—for example, perhaps only those men with a specific genotype will develop prostate cancer when exposed to the pesticides we studied," explains Cockburn. "If organic production became the norm, we'd also get rid of the exposures measured in this study—ambient pesticide occurrence," says Cockburn.
Methyl bromide, a fumigant being phased out due to its destruction of the ozone layer, can damage DNA. (Perhaps not much of an improvement, the replacement fumigant that will be pumped into the majority of strawberry fields in the country is the highly toxic methyl iodide.) Looking at 173 men living in California's Central Valley, an area prone to pesticide use in agricultural fields, researchers mapped pesticide exposure through pesticide drift maps and found that men who were exposed to methyl bromide had a 62 percent higher risk of having prostate cancer.
Other organochlorine pesticides actually fuel a gene that boosts the production of prostate cancer cells. In this study, men exposed to this class of bug-killing pesticides saw a twofold higher risk of developing prostate cancer when compared to men who were not exposed. Captan, a fungicide used on about half of the apple orchards in the United States and most Florida strawberries, was associated with a higher risk of prostate cancer only at high doses.