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Pesticides could increase the spread of deadly infections, study finds

Researchers say contaminated water supplies put consumers at risk

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Photo (c) esemelwe - Getty Images
Many countries are banning certain pesticides due to health risks associated with the products. Now, a new study is looking to reinforce those decisions by exploring how the use of such pesticides can be harmful to consumers’ health. 

According to researchers from the University of California - Berkeley, pesticides are not only an environmental burden but have also been linked to increase the spread of schistosomiasis -- a deadly condition commonly known as snail fever that can lead to severe kidney damage. 

“Environmental pollutants can increase our exposure and susceptibility to infectious diseases,” said researcher Justin Remais. “From dioxins decreasing resistance to influenza virus, to air pollutants increasing COVID-19 mortality, to arsenic impacting lower respiratory tract and enteric infections -- research has shown that reducing pollution is an important way to protect populations from infectious diseases.”  

The dangers of contaminated water

To understand the dangers that pesticides pose to consumers’ health, the researchers analyzed nearly 150 experiments that closely examined how consumers’ risk of contracting schistosomiasis is affected by the use of pesticides. 

It quickly became apparent to the researchers that even minimal exposure to these chemicals could increase the likelihood of infection. The researchers explained that the infection thrives in contaminated water; once consumers come into contact with these water supplies, the infection quickly spreads. 

“We know that dam construction and irrigation expansion increase schistosomiasis transmission in low-income settings by disrupting freshwater ecosystems,” said researcher Christopher Hoover. “We were shocked by the strength of evidence we found also linking agrochemical pollution to the amplification of schistosomiasis transmission.” 

Though widespread use of pesticides isn’t necessary for widespread infection, the researchers point out that these chemicals affect the natural ecosystem of the water. For example, the snails that carry the infection are typically eaten by other animals in the water; however, the chemicals can make such waters uninhabitable for other creatures, which creates the perfect ecosystem for the infectious snail population to thrive. 

In an effort to protect consumers from a potentially deadly infection, the researchers hope that these findings inspire lawmakers to do their part and restrict access to these pesticides, as the risks far outweigh the benefits. 

“We need to develop policies that protect public health by limiting the amplification of schistosomiasis transmission by agrochemical pollution,” said Hoover. “If we can devise ways to maintain the agricultural benefit of these chemicals, while limiting their overuse in schistosomiasis-endemic areas, we could prevent additional harm to public health within communities that already experience a high and unacceptable burden of disease.” 

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