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Cancer Trends Progress Report – 2011/2012 Update

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Prevention: Environmental Factors

General studies of people with high exposures to pesticides have found high rates of certain types of cancers.

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Pesticides and Cancer

Pesticides are chemicals used to eliminate or control unwanted or harmful insects, plants, fungi, animals, or microorganisms in order to protect food crops and other plants. Some pesticides have been classified as carcinogens. Chlordane and dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) are possible human carcinogens. General studies of people with high exposures to pesticides, such as farmers, pesticide applicators, manufacturers, and crop dusters, have found high rates of blood and lymphatic system cancers; cancers of the lip, stomach, lung, brain, and prostate; as well as melanoma and other skin cancers.

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Possible carcinogens, pesticides chlordane and DDT and their metabolites, measured in human blood.

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Period – 1999–2004

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Chlordane was measured in three metabolites. Concentrations of chlordane (and its metabolite, oxychlordane) rose from 1999 to 2002 and then dropped from 2003–2004; chlordane metabolites trans-nonachlor and heptachlor epoxide have been on a more constant and steady decline from 1999–2004. Blood concentrations of the DDT metabolite DDE have risen. Pesticide levels in human metabolites were measured in a random sample of participants from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).

Table P1. 95th Percentile for Blood (lipid-adjusted) concentrations of DDT and chlordane, nanogram/gram (ng/g), 1999–2004.

  1999–2000 (ng/g) 2001–2002 (ng/g) 2003–2004 (ng/g)
Chlordane metabolites
oxychlordane 44.8 49.7 37.7
Trans-nonachlor 79.4 78.2 68.3
Heptachlor epoxide 24.0 21.8 18.9
DDE 1830.0 2320.0 1860.0

Source: National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals,
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2009

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Most Recent Estimates

Blood concentrations (nanograms per gram, ng/g):

  • Chlordane
    • oxychlordane – 37.7 ng/g
    • trans-nonachlor – 68.3 ng/g
    • heptachlor epoxide – 18.9 ng/g
  • DDT (DDE) – 1860.0 ng/g

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Healthy People 2020 Targets

Reduce exposure of the population to pesticides, heavy metals, and other toxic chemicals, as measured by blood and urine concentrations of the substances or their metabolites.

  • Reduce chlordane (oxychlordane) from 37.7 ng/g to 26.39 ng/g of lipid.
  • Reduce DDT (DDE) from 1860 ng/g to 1302 ng/g of lipid.
  • Reduce beta-hexachlorocyclohexane (beta-HCH) from 56.5 ng/g to 39.55 ng/g of lipid.

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Groups at Risk for Pesticide Exposure

Farmers, pesticide applicators, crop dusters, pesticide manufacturers, and home gardeners could be at high risk of exposure to pesticides. The general population may be exposed to low doses of pesticides from fruits and vegetables bought from the supermarket or from contaminated surface or ground water.

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Key Issues

National goals have been set, but not yet reached, to reduce pesticide exposure. To help prevent pesticide exposure, people who apply pesticides should follow application directions and wear appropriate personal protective equipment (gloves, masks, etc.). For the general public, washing fruits and vegetables with water also helps to reduce pesticide exposure.

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Additional Information on Pesticides

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