Campaigners warn of “pesticide cocktail” increase

Mixtures of pesticides commonly found in UK food, water and soil may be harming the health of both humans and wildlife, according to a new report. 

However, some experts have rubbished some of the claims made in the research, which has not been peer-reviewed.

The Pesticide Action Network UK and the Soil Association claimed that 26% of all food, and 40% of fruit and vegetables, consumed in the UK contain “pesticide cocktails”, with some items containing traces of up to 14 different pesticides.

The new report, entitled The Cocktail Effect”, also details evidence of pesticide cocktails in the environment, with mixtures of as many as 10 different chemicals found in UK soil and water with “the potential to affect wildlife such as birds and bees”.

The report’s authors warn that post-Brexit trade deals could lead to a rise in the number of pesticides authorised for use in the UK and an increase in the level and variety of pesticides permitted in food. Both outcomes would increase the exposure of the public and environment to potentially dangerous pesticide cocktails, they said.

“It’s crucial that the government ensures that no weakening of UK pesticide regulations or standards occurs as a result of Brexit, including through trade negotiations with non-EU countries, and that in turn food imports meet these same UK standards,” noted PAN UK.

Josie Cohen from PAN UK added: “Because of the overuse of pesticides in UK agriculture, we are constantly exposed to a wide array of different chemicals which can interact to become more toxic creating a ‘cocktail effect’. Yet the government continues to assess the safety of just one pesticide at a time. The truth is we simply have no idea of the human health and environmental impacts of long-term exposure to hundreds of different pesticides.”

The report brings together a range of scientific studies showing that pesticide cocktails can be harmful even when each individual chemical appears at levels at or below its “no-observed-effect-concentration”.

However, some pesticide experts strongly criticised some of the claims made in the report. Speaking to The Guardian, David Coggon, emeritus professor of occupational and environmental medicine at the University of Southampton, said: “This report rightly highlights the importance of maintaining a high standard of risk assessment for pesticides in the UK, should Brexit mean that we no longer participate in the EU regulatory scheme. It is, however, seriously misleading in its discussion of the risks to health from exposure to combinations of pesticide residues in foods.

“Where pesticide residues are found in foods, they are almost always at levels below that at which there would be concerns for health. The joint toxicity of chemicals in combination has been the subject of substantial research over the last two decades … [which has found that] when exposures are at levels well below the threshold for toxicity of each chemical individually, synergy is not expected to occur. The evaluation of evidence in this report comes nowhere near the level of scientific rigour that is required,” he added.

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