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Article title: FAQ WOMEN AND PESTICIDES: NWHIC
Conditions: DDT poisoning
DDT was one of the most widely used chemicals for controlling insect pests on agricultural crops and controlling insects that carry such diseases as malaria and typhus. DDT does not occur naturally in the environment. The presence of DDT in the environment is generally a result of contamination due to past production and use and subsequent movement from sites of application to land, water, and air. Several waste sites, including EPA’s Superfund sites contain these compounds and might act as additional sources of environmental contamination. Some DDT may be degraded in air, but the compound may persist for a long time bound to certain soils.
Humans can be exposed to DDT and similar chemical contaminants (DDE and DDD) primarily by eating food that contains small amounts of these compounds. Even though DDT has not been used in this country since 1972, small amounts of DDT and DDE are found in soil and, under certain conditions, may be transferred to crops grown on this soil. In addition, imported foods may have been directly exposed to DDT. The amount of DDT in crops has been decreasing and is expected to continue to decrease with time. EPA banned all uses of DDT, except for public health emergency, in 1972 primarily because amounts were building up in the environment and because some cancer tests in laboratory animals showed positive results.
Short-term exposure to high doses of DDT affects primarily the nervous system. People who either voluntarily or accidentally swallow very high amounts of DDT experience excitability, tremors, and seizures. These effects on the nervous system appeared to be reversible once exposure stopped. Some people who come in contact with DDT complain of rashes or irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat. People exposed for a long term at low doses, such as people who made DDT, had some changes in the levels of liver enzymes but there was no indication that DDT caused irreversible harmful (noncancer) effects.
In the five studies of DDT-exposed workers, results do not indicate increases in the number of deaths or cancers. However, these studies had limitations so that possible increases in cancer may not have been detected. Because DDT caused cancer in laboratory animals, it is assumed that DDT could have this effect in humans. Therefore, EPA lists DDT, DDE, and DDD as probable human carcinogens. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has determined that DDT may reasonably be anticipated to be a carcinogen.
The issue of pesticide residues in food is quite controversial. Pesticides are used by farmers to prevent fungal invasions, insect damage, and the growth of unwanted (and often poisonous) plants. This has a positive benefit in terms of public health because fungi, insects, and non-crop plants can contaminate crops with many natural toxins.
With the use of pesticides, farmers can maximize their efforts in the field, thus minimizing the cost of the produce to the consumer.
While pesticides may be found in many products, the levels at which they are present fall far below the levels known to not cause any health effects. The fact that they are found at all is only due to the significant advances in analytical chemistry. The tests are now so sensitive that the detection level that can be easily reached is equivalent to detecting one teaspoon of salt in one million gallons of water. Levels even lower than that can sometimes be detected. The mere presence of a trace amount of a pesticide does not mean that the product is unhealthy. On the contrary, eating a diet full of a variety of fruits, grains, and vegetables has been shown to significantly decrease your risk of a variety of health problems from high blood pressure to cancer. Variety is the key to good health.
This information was taken from the ATSDR Public Health Statement, 18 September 1996, from the Environmental Health Home Page, NIEHS, Answers to Selected Questions, 4 February 1997
You can find out more about pesticides by contacting the following organizations:
You can also search for more women's environmental health topics at: "Women’s Health and the Environment: A Federal Inventory of Activities".
All material contained in the FAQs is free of copyright restrictions, and may be copied, reproduced, or duplicated without permission of the Office on Women's Health in the Department of Health and Human Services; citation of the source is appreciated.
Publication date: 1998
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