Science in Society Archive

Pesticide Illnesses and GM Soybeans

Ban on Aerial Spraying Demanded in Argentina

Coalition of doctors, health professionals and researchers demand ban on aerial spraying based on evidence documenting increase in pesticide-related illnesses since the introduction of GM soya Dr Eva Sirinathsinghji

A network of 160 physicians, health workers and researchers in Argentina are demanding a ban on aerial spraying of pesticides based on increases in cancer and a range of pesticide-related illnesses since the introduction of genetically modified (GM) soybeans. These illnesses affect development, reproduction, the skin, as well as the immune, respiratory, neurological, and endocrine systems.

The network met in August 2010 [1] and again in 2011[2]. Following the 2010 meeting an important report was compiled linking agrochemical exposure to significant increase in illnesses including birth defects and cancers in and around areas where agrochemicals are used. Increasing illness parallels the introduction and spread of GM soybeans tolerant to Monsanto’s glyphosate-based herbicide, Roundup.  

The striking link between illness and pesticide use presented at the first meeting led the Network Of Physicians Of Drop-Sprayed Towns to propose a complete ban on all aerial sprayings of pesticides, a complete ban of pesticides of toxicological types Ia (defined as extremely hazardous) and Ib (highly hazardous), and a ban on other pesticide use within 1 kilometre of residential areas. They also questioned the current agro-industrial and transgenic production model, stating that other options for agro-ecological production should be promoted and developed by the State University.

The second meeting called on local and national government to ensure people’s right to good health instead of the rights of agribusiness and private proprietors that currently prevail, and repeated their call for a complete ban on aerial spraying.

The Argentinean communities’ fight for judicial, healthcare and governmental recognition for health problems associated with pesticide use goes back 10 years. A summary compiled by non-governmental organisations and community residents is contained in the ‘Declaration of Caroya’.  It documents [3] the “reduction in the average age and heightof residents in crop-sprayed towns “due to malnutrition”, and “decrease of the body’s natural defences.”  In addition,   “birth  defects,  mutagenesis, miscarriages,  depression  and  suicide,  disorders  of  the  central  nervous  system  and  other neurological pathologies; disabilities, spina  bifida, lupus, leukemia and other types of cancers; chloracne  and  other  skin  problems;  asthma,  allergies,  and  other  respiratory  and  lung-related problems;  male  sterility  and  impotence;  hormonal  disruption  and  other  hormonal  disorders; diminished  childhood  development;  prolonged  febrile  syndrome  without  focus;  children’s increased vulnerability to pollutants; anemia, multiple sclerosis, cerebral ischemia, death..”

Alarming increases in birth defects, cancers, and other illnesses

Public health officials have ignored ‘alarming notes coming from healthcare officials’ and consequently, very few epidemiological studies have been conducted. However the physicians (most of whom have been serving the same populations for over 25 years) have striking observational data that correlated with presentations and stories from people in the communities for a range of diseases associated with agrochemical exposure. They highlighted a systematic link between the unusual observations of recent years with this exposure.

The province of Chaco, where Dr Maria del Carmen Serveso heads a hospital intensive care unit, presented a devastating overview of rising illnesses in many towns. The illnesses include renal failure, birth defects in children of young mothers, cancers even in very young people, miscarriages, difficulty in becoming pregnant, respiratory problems and acute allergies; all linked by health teams to chemical contamination from agroindustrial farming recently imposed on the area replacing small-scale cotton farming and native forests. Respiratory illnesses were found to correlate with paraquat exposure.

One of the few epidemiological studies performed by Dr Gladys Trombotto, a geneticist from the University of Cordoba Maternity and Neonatal Unit, assessed 110 000 births over 10 years, and found a 2- and 3-fold increase in congenital and musculoskeletal defects respectively between 1971 and 2003 [4].

Child cancer data presented by Dr Otaño backed up what other physicians found in their own observations – incidence of birth defect rates increased significantly. He recorded 15.7 cases/100 000 in 2007 compared with the pre-existent level of 10.5 cases/100 000 in 1985.

The strong correlation of pesticide exposure with incidence of illness was exemplified by the observation made in 2005 by members of the Córdoba's Ituzaingó neighbourhood, showing a higher rate of cancer in residents living closer to the fields that are sprayed. 

The doctors suspect that the scale of damage to human health caused by agrochemicals is not fully recognised. The numbers of miscarriages may be higher than recorded levels, and other neurological and psychological problems are not currently being assessed. Preliminary and small-scale tests of children under a year of age suggest the existence of such illnesses in agrochemical use zones.

Epidemiological studies conducted outside Argentina

Studies conducted in other countries were also discussed at the meeting. A study performed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the US found a 5-fold increase in congenital birth defects when mothers, who lived near wheat crops treated with 2,4-D became pregnant [5]. Another study, found a link between atrazine application and birth defects [6].  9 out of 11 studies showed a positive association between exposure to pesticides and miscarriage, foetal death, stillbirth, and neonatal death; and identified critical windows of exposure associated with early or late abortions.

Scientific research correlates with clinical testimonies

Assays on DNA damage, an underlying cause of cancer, were done on blood samples of residents of Río de los Sauces, Saira, Gigena, Marcos Juárez and Las Vertientes, an area where 19 % of women reported at least one spontaneous abortion [7]. They found significant increase in DNA damage in agrochemical communities. The most common pesticides used are glyphosate, cypermethrin, 2,4-D, endosulphan, atrazine and Chlorpyrifos.

Data from studies linking glyphosate to birth defects in frog and chick embryos raised concerns about similar clinical outcome in children of exposed parents, as attested to by the doctors at the conference. (For details of this research study and others, see [8] Lab Study Establishes Glyphosate Link to Birth Defects, SiS 48 and [9] EU Regulators and Monsanto Exposed for Hiding Glyphosate Toxicity, SiS 51.)

Extensive and ever increasing pesticide use and aerial spraying in Argentina

The geographers at University of Cordoba, Argentina estimate that 12 million people in Argentina are directly exposed to glyphosate alone, and this figure does not include the population from large cities in the sprayed areas. Pesticide use has reportedly gone up from 35 million litres in 1990 to 285 million in 2009, due largely to the huge increases in GM soybean farming covering approximately 22 million hectares over many regions of the country. Along with an increase in area cultivated with GM soybean is an increase in the amount of glyphosate sprayed on crops. Glyphosate spraying went from less than 2 litres per hectare in 1996 to 20 litres per hectare in 2010, most likely due to the development of resistance to the herbicide.

Other countries in South America are also employing extensive aerial spraying of pesticides. Paraguay was in the news recently for pesticide spraying that resulted in the instant death of 50 fully grown cows, as well as snakes, fish, and various bird species. All water treatment plants are thought to be contaminated [10].  

To conclude

Over 12 million people in Argentina are currently exposed to agrochemicals, with cancers, birth defects and other serious illnesses on the rise. Doctors have compiled comprehensive evidence linking these illnesses to pesticides, calling on their government to ban all aerial sprays until their safety can be adequately proven.  

In view of the devastation effects of glyphosate and glyphosate tolerant crops on soils, crops, and livestock documented in the United States [11] (see USDA Scientist Reveals All - Glyphosate Hazards to Crops, Soils, Animals, and Consumers, SiS 53), an outright ban on the herbicide is fully justified, and long overdue [12] (Ban Glyphosate Herbicides Now, SiS 43).

Article first published 18/01/12


  1. Report from the 1st National Meeting of Physicians in the Crop-sprayed Towns, Faculty of Medical Sciences, National University of Cordoba, 27th and 28th August 2010
  2. Declaration Of 2nd Meeting Of Physicians Of Sprayed And Fumigated Towns And Villages, 5th July 2011
  3. Declaration of Caroya. (2008, September 13).
  4. Trombotto G. (2009). Tendencia de las malformaciones congénitas mayores en el Hospital Universitario de Maternidad y Neonatología de la Ciudad de Córdoba en los años 1972-2003. Un problema emergente en salud pública (Trend of major congenital defects at the University Hospital of Maternity and Neonatology from the City of Cordoba during 1972-2003. An emerging problem in public health). THESIS OF THE MASTER’S DEGREE IN PUBLIC HEALTH. Library of the Faculty of Medical Sciences, National University of Cordoba.
  5. Schreinemachers DM. Birth defects and other adverse perinatal outcomes in four U.S. Wheat-producing states. Environmental Health Perspectives 2009 111, 1259-64.
  6. Winchester PD, Huskins J, Ying J. Agrichemicals in surface water and birth defects in the United States. Acta Paediatrica 2009, 98, 664-9.
  7. Mañas, F., Peralta, L., Aiassa, D., Bosch, C. Aberraciones cromosómicas en trabajadores rurales de la Provincia de Córdoba expuestos a plaguicidas (Chromosome aberrations in rural workers exposed to pesticides in the Province of Cordoba). Journal of Basic and Applied Genetics 2009, 20, 1.
  8. Ho MW. Lab study establishes glyphosate link to birth defects.Science in Society 48, 32-33, 2010.
  9. Sirinathsinghji E and Ho MW. EU regulators and Monstanto exposed for hiding glyphosate toxicity.Science in Society 51, 46-48, 2011
  10. Crop Dusting in Plane Caused Chaos in Guichon, 5th December 2011
  11. Sirinathsinghji E. USDA scientist reveals all – glyphosate hazards to crops, soils, animals and consumers. Science in Society 53, to appear, 2012
  12. Ho MW. Ban glyphosate herbicides now.Science in Society 43, 34-35, 2009.

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