Pesticides can cause cancer - so why does CRUK ignore them?

A regular sight in rural areas - pesticides being applied to crops. Photo: Billy Ridgers.
A regular sight in rural areas - pesticides being applied to crops. Photo: Billy Ridgers.
Cancer Research UK's slogan is 'Let's beat cancer sooner'. But Georgina Downs wonders why it ignores the role of pesticides sprayed on crop fields - which is a recognised cause of cancer - and why it has spent over £750 million since 2007 on paying its employees.
"The only way to win the war on cancer is to prevent cancer and the only way to prevent cancer is to recognise all the various causes of cancer in the first place."

It is hard to think of a day when cancer is not in the headlines such is its increasing prevalence in one form or another in all our lives.

However, over the last couple of weeks there has been a significant increase in mass media coverage of the disease as a result of the 'no make up selfie' campaign started by someone on social media.

And what a coup it was - £8 million poured in

Although the campaign was seemingly not initially connected to any particular charitable activity, it was soon 'jumped on' by Cancer Research UK (CRUK).1

CRUK certainly acted fast to ensure it would get maximum public donations and sure enough in the space of not even a week CRUK had received a staggering £8 million.

If I really thought that this increase in funds would help "beat cancer sooner" (in the words of CRUK's current slogan)2 then I would be fully supportive.

After all, I myself have witnessed first-hand the devastating impact of cancer from the loss of some of my own family members (including my Auntie Barbara, the first and only British female Concorde pilot)3, close friends - and some of the rural residents that had contacted the campaign I run on the adverse health impacts of agricultural pesticides

Astonishing levels paid to top CRUK employees

But those thinking of donating to CRUK or who have already donated should be aware of the truly astonishing amount of money that is spent on CRUK's employees every year.

It appears from CRUK's Annual Report and Accounts that this was a whopping £130 million for the financial year 2012/2013 alone.4 This includes around 35 employees all receiving in excess of £100,000 in 2013 with the top earner in the £220,001 - £230,000 band.5

In fact it would appear that since 2007 the amount of money spent on CRUK employees is well in excess of £750 million.6

I wonder if all those who generously donate to CRUK are aware of this fact? Anyone donating money to any charity should check first where that money is intended to go.

Pesticides and cancer

It is often said "prevention is better than cure" and this could not be more apt than here. The only way to win the war on cancer is to prevent cancer and the only way to prevent cancer is to recognise all the various causes of cancer in the first place.

Nearly a quarter of a century ago in its 1990 report entitled "Pesticides, Chemicals and Health," the British Medical Association (BMA) detailed studies that had linked pesticide use and various forms of cancer among farmers, including prostate cancer, lymphomas, myeloma, leukaemia and soft tissue sarcomas.

Since then many studies have also linked pesticides to other high exposure groups such as rural residents and communities living in the locality of regularly sprayed crop fields.

"The only way to win the war on cancer is to prevent cancer and the only way to prevent cancer is to recognise all the various causes of cancer in the first place."

Crop sprays - a known cancer risk

For example, one US study found high brain cancer rates in people living near cranberry agricultural fields in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Results showed that living within 2,600 feet of the cranberry growing area resulted in twice the risk for all brain cancers and nearly a 7-fold increased risk for a type of brain cancer known as astrocytoma.7

A review last year in Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology on the chronic health impacts of pesticides8 contained references to a whole host of other such studies that found associations of pesticide exposure with various forms of cancer, as well as a wide range of other diseases, for high exposure groups, including residents.9

This includes, cancers of the breast, prostate, lung, brain (including childhood brain cancer), kidney, pancreas, oesophagus, stomach, bladder, bone, as well as non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, multiple myeloma, soft tissue sarcoma, leukaemia, (including childhood leukaemia).

Other chronic conditions includes, birth defects, reproductive disorders, neuro degenerative diseases (including Parkinson's, Alzheimer's), cardio-vascular diseases, respiratory diseases, diabetes, chronic renal diseases, and autoimmune diseases (such as rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematous).

The review concluded that, taken together, such chronic diseases are considered as the major disorders affecting public health in the 21st century and concluded that it is time to find a preventive approach and find efficient alternatives to using pesticides.

The UK's rural cancer epidemic

Since 2001, the most highly reported health conditions from rural communities to the campaign I run, the UK Pesticides Campaign, are various different cancers, as well as neurological conditions (eg. neurological damage, MS, Parkinson's, amongst others).

I have known a number of residents lose their lives, or the lives of their husbands or wives, sons or daughters, including children, to various cancers.

It has been heart breaking to watch this happening, especially knowing that if pesticides were not sprayed in the locality of residents' homes, schools, playgrounds, then such pesticide related cancers would have been totally preventable.

The fact that the Government acted proactively to ban smoking in public places has created a clear mismatch and inconsistency with its failure to protect people from passive exposure to pesticides, especially pesticides used in the agricultural sector which accounts for approximately 80% of pesticides used in the UK each year.10

Even some of the pesticide manufacturer's own material data sheets for pesticide products used on fields carry warnings of carcinogenic effects and the risk of cancer.

CRUK's position on pesticides

Yet, despite the fact that pesticides are one of the known causes of cancer, the UK Government, as well as some of the leading cancer charities - in particular CRUK - continue to largely dismiss pesticides as a cause of cancer.

The impression cancer charities, such as CRUK, impress on the public is that they want to beat cancer. They get millions in donations (although as indicated a considerable amount of which is spent on its employees), yet cancer is still on the increase and more and more families are being affected.

But if they carry on dismissing some of the important, and known, causes of cancer, and that could be easily prevented, then cancer simply will not be able to be beaten any time soon.

CRUK's Chairman founded pesticide producer Syngenta

CRUK's position is not particularly surprising considering that its Chairman Michael Pragnell, has a long-term employment history in the multi-billion dollar global pesticides industry.

You might find it astonishing that Pragnell was the founder and Chief Executive Officer of the major pesticide producing company Syngenta.11 He is also a former President of CropLife International.12 In total he has worked in the pesticides sector for around 20 years.13

But this is not necessarily to conclude that his appointment has influenced the charity's policy. In my experience, CRUK played down pesticides as a cause of cancer even before the appointment of its current Chairman in 2010.

The point is more that their choice of Chairman reflects CRUK's whole corporate ethos. And that their devil-may-care attitude to pesticides is unlikely to change any time soon.

Meanwhile, the overall cancer epidemic continues

As a journalist and campaigner I have in fact myself previously written articles about cancer for various publications. These articles included some of the truly alarming cancer statistics (many of which are issued by CRUK itself).

An estimated 14.1 million new cancer cases and 8.2 million deaths occurred worldwide in 2012.14 Latest UK statistics showed that 331,487 people in the UK were diagnosed with cancer in 2011, that's around 910 people every day, and more than 1 in 3 people will develop some form of cancer during their lifetime, (and it won't be too much longer before it is 1 in 2).15

There were around 159,000 deaths from cancer in 2011 and over one in four of all deaths in the UK were due to cancer. In 2011, more than 430 people died from cancer every day in the UK, that's one person every four minutes.15

I have also previously written about some of the astronomical costs of cancer. For example, in the UK alone, in 2008, cancer cost £5.13 billion in terms of NHS costs alone, and the total costs to society in England was estimated to be a staggering £18.33 billion, with these costs predicted to increase to £24.72 billion by 2020.16

Preventing cancer is the only way to beat cancer!

With such ever swelling increases in cancer statistics, anyone who thinks that giving money to CRUK is going to "beat cancer sooner" has been rather seriously misled.

CRUK may be a very successful organisation from a commercial standpoint, and from the point of view of those 35 or so employees earning over £100,000 per year.

But in refusing to accept known causes of various forms of cancer, such as pesticides, it calls into question the sincerity of its self-declared mission.

The only way to beat cancer is to prevent it. To do this all causes have to be recognised and acted upon. It is an absolute no brainer that no pesticides should be sprayed where people live and breathe, especially babies and young children.

The sooner the UK Government, CRUK, as well as some of the other leading cancer charities stop dismissing pesticides as a cause of cancer, the sooner at least one of the causes can be prevented.



Georgina Downs is a journalist and campaigner. She runs the UK Pesticides Campaign and recently won her long term battle to change the Government's policy approach to assessing the risk to people from agricultural pesticides. DEFRA has confirmed that the changes due to take place could lead to some pesticides being withdrawn, and affect new ones coming through the system.



2. "Let's beat cancer sooner" is CRUK's current slogan eg. see Also see a recent Tweet posted by CRUK "We're loving your #cancerawareness #nomakeupselfie pics! The campaign isn't ours but every £ helps #beatcancersooner".


4. on page 31

5. on page 32

6. The 2007/2008 report can be seen at

The 2008/2009 report can be seen at

The 2009/2010 report can be seen at

The 2010/2011 report can be seen at

The 2011/2012 report can be seen at

The 2012/2013 report can be seen at

7. Aschengrau A, Ozonoff D, Coogan P et al. Cancer Risk and Residential Proximity to Cranberry Cultivation in Massachusetts.American Journal of Public Health, 86(9): 1289-1296. 1996.

8. "Pesticides and Human Chronic Diseases; Evidences, Mechanisms, and Perspectives" published in Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology,Volume 268, Issue 2, 15 April 2013, pages 157-177 and which can be seen at

9. The recognition that the exposure for residents living in the locality of sprayed fields is high has clearly been recognised in EU legislation as residents are now specifically defined as a "vulnerable group." This recognises that residents are "subject to high pesticide exposure over the long term." (See Article 3, para 14, of the EU PPP Regulation regarding the authorisation of pesticides at

10. Agricultural and horticultural uses account for approx. 80 per cent of the amount of pesticides used per year in the UK. Garden, home, forestry and amenity uses account for the balance per year in the UK. (NB. Amenity use only accounts for a mere 4% of pesticide use in the UK per year).






16. Policy Exchange, Research Note, Feb. 2010, entitled "The cost of cancer," page 1, which can be seen at


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