Study Finds Higher Rates of Diabetes in Women Who Work With Certain Pesticides

December 19th, 2014

by Rebecca Thistlethwaite

Source: Jill Brown

A recent article in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine (Starling AP, et al. Occup Environ Med 2014; O:1-7) discusses the elevated diabetes risk for wives of farmers and pesticide applicators in both Iowa and North Carolina. The study found an increased risk of diabetes for women who used five distinct classes of pesticides. Similar risks were found among men who mixed pesticides- this study looked specifically at women who had ever mixed or applied pesticides themselves.

Not only do men and women have different pesticide exposure rates depending on how involved they are in the mixing and application of pesticides, their individual bodies are also thought to metabolize, or process, pesticides in different ways. This particular research sought to better understand how pesticide exposure affects women, with an emphasis on diabetes risk.

Data was drawn from a very large study population of 32,126 female spouses who enrolled in the Agricultural Health Study (AHS) between the years of 1993-1997. Of those, a smaller number had ever mixed or applied pesticides. Women who already had diabetes at the time of the study were also excluded.

In a follow-up phone call 5 and 10 years later, data was recorded on a multitude of health conditions, including adult-onset diabetes. Of the final sample size of 13,637 who responded to the first follow up phone call, 688 women self-reported that they had been diagnosed with adult-onset diabetes, which represents 5% of that sample group. This is comparable to the national incidence of diabetes among women during the study period, according to Centers for Disease Control (CDC) research. It is now estimated that 8.3% of the US population (male & female) have diagnosed or undiagnosed diabetes.

However, despite being similar to the national rate, the women in this study who were diagnosed with adult-onset diabetes had been around certain types of pesticides more than women in the study who did not develop diabetes.

In addition to pesticide use, many correlating factors were associated with the diabetes diagnosis, including: older age, a higher body mass index (BMI), and were more likely to be from North Carolina than from Iowa (maybe it’s all that high calorie BBQ?). They were also more likely to have a high school education or less (rather than having a higher level of education), be postmenopausal at enrollment, and have a family history of diabetes.

Body Mass Index is an interesting factor – it used to be commonly believed that obesity leads to diabetes. There is now new evidence that obesity can be caused or intensified by exposure to environmental toxins such as pesticides (referred to as obesogens) which then can lead to diabetes.

The pesticides that had a statistically significant relationship with adult-onset diabetes in women pesticide users include:

  • Dieldrin (organochlorine insecticide banned in US in 1985)
  • Fonofos (organophosphate insecticide banned in US in 1999)
  • Phorate (organophosphate insecticide still allowed to limited extent, pending EPA review)
  • Parathion (organophosphate insecticide, phased out in early 2000s)
  • 2,4,5-T/2,4,5-TP (chlorophenoxy herbicide both banned since 1985)

So even though many of these pesticides have been banned for many years (10-29 years ago), the women in this study used them at some point in their lives and are seeing deleterious health impacts many years later.

That is one reason why long-term studies must be conducted on the health impacts of pesticides. Better yet is to use the precautionary principle in which we don’t permit a pesticide to be used until it can be proven that it is definitively safe to humans, wildlife, and soil health.

Next time you buy organic, remember that you are not only reducing your own personal exposure to pesticide residues, but also the exposure to toxins for the farmer’s family, farmworkers, and the surrounding communities who live around agricultural fields.

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