Synthetic pesticides are harmful by design. Independent science shows exposure to pesticides can harm people’s health, with children particularly at risk. Impacts include cancer, neurodevelopmental disorders, behavioural disorders, hormone disruption, and other serious health impacts. 

To protect people’s health, it is crucial that the EU continues and increases efforts for pesticide reduction. 

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Pesticides are harmful by design. The body of evidence on how pesticides impact health and the environment has steadily grown, underlining the need to act. Exposure to pesticides in our food, air, drinking water and the wider environment can increase the risk of cancers and infertility, harm children’s healthy development and disrupt the body’s natural hormone system. Farmers and agricultural workers are among those most at risk from pesticide pollution.  

It is estimated that globally, 385 million unintentional pesticide poisonings happen each year, resulting in 11,000 deaths. Health costs associated with exposure to pesticides and other chemical substances exceeded 10% of the global GDP. On a European scale, the societal costs directly attributable to pesticides were around €2.3 billion in 2017 

To better understand human exposure to pesticides in Europe, the European Human Biomonitoring Initiative (HBM4EU) conducted a large-scale human biomonitoring survey in adults and children across five European countries between 2014 and 2021. The result? A total of 46 pesticides and their metabolites were identified, with at least two pesticides detected in 84% of the samples collected. 

Global concern about hazardous pesticides and the harm they may pose to people and the environment is also on the rise: in Europe alone, over 1.1 million people are demanding EU decision makers to ban harmful pesticides and support an environmentally-friendly agriculture for sustainable production of healthy food. 

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The introduction of legally-binding, EU-wide pesticide reduction targets

With the EU Green Deal, the European Union has committed to achieving a healthy planet for healthy people, which includes climate neutrality and the halt of environmental degradation. Making the EU’s current agricultural production more sustainable and healthier is a building block of the Green Deal.  

As part of the implementation of the EU’s Farm to Fork strategy and its pesticide reduction targets, the European Commission launched a proposal for a new Sustainable Use of Pesticides (SUR) regulation in June 2022. This proposal was an important step towards an effective and coherent pesticide reduction policy. Its main proposed measures included legally binding targets at EU level to reduce pesticide use, the introduction of an environmentally-friendly pest control methods, and a ban on the use of pesticides in sensitive areas. 

This proposal for a new Sustainable Use of Pesticides regulation was set to replace the 2009 Sustainable Use of Pesticides directive, a piece of law that has major shortcomings when it comes to reducing pesticide use. Following a substantial hollowing out of the draft text, members of the European Parliament voted against the proposal in November 2023 and in February 2024, the EU Commission President proposed to withdraw the draft law altogether. 

Strengthening health protection synthetic pesticides: HEAL’s demands

Despite progress in some EU member states on use reduction, pesticide pollution still poses significant risks to human health and the environment, according to a recent report from the European Environment Agency. Pesticide pollution continues to be a key driver for biodiversity loss, and increasing scientific research shows that current pesticide reduction measures put in place by some European countries fail to protect vulnerable groups.  

HEAL has laid out three demands for the EU Commission and member states to meet to protect people’s health and the environment:  

Demand 1: Swiftly negotiate a legally-binding, health-first update of EU pesticides rules to protect current and future generations

Pesticides used in the EU’s agricultural production are a major health threat, and the body of scientific evidence on how hazardous pesticides harm people’s health keeps on growing.

The scientific community has repeatedly underlined the need for action, with the most recent example being the 3,300 scientists from across Europe that have come out in support of more ambitious pesticide legislation, stating it is “a cornerstone of food security and human health”.    

To prevent further serious health impacts and to safeguard the health of current and future generations, EU decision makers need to adopt legally-binding pesticide reduction measures without delay.  

Demand 2: End the use of hazardous pesticides by 2035

Both the European Commission and member states should set clear and measurable targets to reduce Europe’s dependency on chemical pesticides. HEAL and the 1 million supporters of the Save Bees and Farmers petition call for an 80% gradual reduction of the use of synthetic pesticides by 2030, aiming at a total phase out by 2035.  

Alternatives to some of the most harmful pesticides, such as glyphosate, are already available and show a transition to a pesticide-free future is possible.

These targets should take into consideration the human and environmental health impacts and protection of biodiversity.

Demand 3: Create pesticide-free areas and adequate buffer zones

Policymakers should ensure harmful pesticides are explicitly banned in sensitive areas used by the general public or by vulnerable groups, including public parks and gardens, sports and recreational grounds, school grounds, children’s playgrounds, and around healthcare facilities. Additionally, pesticide-free buffer zones of 50 or 100 metres, depending on the sensitive area in question, should be introduced.   

Read about our demands in more detail by visiting HEAL’s position paper on the public consultation on the Sustainable Use of Pesticides Directives, published in April 2021. 

HEAL and its members will continue to highlight independent evidence and the need for swift reduction measures to prevent disease and to protect the most vulnerable, especially children.