There were, in 2000, a grand total of 920 deaths in the U.S. that were attributed to poisoning. Guess how many of those were pesticide-caused?

OK, I'll tell you: 20.

But, wait: Of that number, 17 were people who deliberately ingested the materials, the majority of which were household pesticides. Of the three unintentional deaths, two were children who ingested pesticides, and the third person ingested an unknown pesticide.

Although farming consistently ranks among the three riskiest occupations nationally, the bulk of the deaths and injuries are from working around farm machinery and livestock.

In 1993, the National Cancer Institute, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, and the Environmental Protection Agency, launched a long term research study on the health of farmers, farm families, and agricultural chemical applicators. It encompasses 90,000 participants in Iowa and North Carolina and seeks to evaluate the role of agricultural exposure to pesticides in the development of cancer, neurological diseases, and other chronic diseases. The study will take more than 10 years to complete.

Four years later, the American Crop Protection Association (now CropLife America) gave an unrestricted grant to the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis to analyze the study and provide an independent review of its methods, objectives, and accuracy. Three areas of weakness were identified and the Harvard Center's advisory committee has recommended additional studies to complement the Agricultural Health Study. Otherwise, the committee says, the vast amounts of data being collected will be difficult to interpret.

One of the charges long associated with pesticide use of all kinds is that it has resulted in an increased incidence of cancers; one area of the study is to determine if farmers, because of their exposure to pesticides, have a higher rate of cancer than the general population.

It will be interesting to see how the eventual results square with earlier studies that have shown no elevation in cancer levels in the farm population as a result of pesticide exposure. A 1998 analysis in the Annals of Epidemiology showed the only higher than average incidence of cancer among farmers was lip cancer, presumably the result of sun exposure. Otherwise, farmer cancer rates were 16 percent less than the general population.

Another study, the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, conducted by the U. S. Center for Health Statistics, showed that children in the families of farm workers were as healthy as, if not healthier than, those in the general population, and that there was no evidence that exposure to agricultural pesticides is causing adverse health effects.

It was noted that most farmers handle pesticides properly, using protective equipment/clothing/eyewear, and apply them according to label instructions. Further, pesticide packaging/handling innovations, including pre-mixed materials, closed delivery systems, and water-soluble packets allow pesticide use with virtually no user contact.

Dr. Robert Kreiger, a member of an expert panel of physicians and scientists evaluating pesticide safety, summed it up thusly: “When pesticide use results in harmful effects, the cause is almost inevitably human failure to heed instructions for use.”