A recent study has found a disturbing correlation between the increase in soy production in Brazil and a rise in pediatric deaths from cancer. The study used 15 years of disease mortality data to estimate the relationship between increased soy production and related community pesticide exposure on childhood cancer incidence.
Amazon facing rapid shift, health risks
“The Brazilian Amazon region is undergoing a transition from low-input cattle production to intensified soy culture with high use of pesticides and herbicides. The expansion has happened really quickly, and it appears educational efforts and training for pesticide applicators didn’t match the growth in pesticide use. When not used properly, there are health implications,” said Marin Skidmore, assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics, part of the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) at U. of I. Skidmore is lead author on the paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
“Our results show a significant relationship between Brazil’s soy expansion and childhood deaths from ALL in the region,” Skidmore said. “Results suggest that about half of pediatric leukemia deaths over a ten-year period may be linked to agricultural intensification and exposure to pesticides.”
Brazil, the world’s largest producer of soybeans, has seen a dramatic increase in soy production in the last two decades, particularly in the Amazon and Cerrado biomes. This expansion has been accompanied by a significant rise in the use of pesticides.
The researchers found a statistically significant correlation between a rise in soy production and acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) deaths in children between 2008 and 2019.
Pesticides in soy, water contamination
The study suggests that the pesticides used in soy cultivation, primarily glyphosate, could be contaminating the country’s water supply. About half the families living in the areas surveyed at the start of the study had access to a well for water supply. The rest depended on surface water, which can become contaminated. The researchers focused on investigating cancer-related death in children under the age of 10 in rural farming areas.
Their examination suggests that 123 children died from acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) caused by soy production over the decade. The researchers estimate that “about half of pediatric leukemia deaths over ten years” could be linked to increased exposure to pesticides. ALL is a highly treatable illness.
However, the researchers found that the only pediatric ALL patients who died following the expansion of soy farming were those who lived over 100 kilometers from a hospital that treats child patients for the disease.
More soy farms, child health risks
The study also found that a 10 percentage point increase in soy plantation area was associated with an additional 0.40 deaths from ALL in children under the age of five per 10,000 population. There were an additional 0.21 deaths for children under 10 per 10,000 population1. In other words, a 10 percentage point increase in municipal area for soy farming increased the likelihood of a single child under the age of five dying from ALL by 1.3 per cent.
The research showed a strong and persistent relationship between the arrival of high-intensity agriculture in the region and adverse human health outcomes1. However, access to high-quality healthcare systems could lessen these links.
The researchers also investigated contamination of water sources as a primary method of pesticide exposure.
“We looked for evidence of pesticide application upstream, in the watershed that flows into a region, and we found it is related to leukemia outcomes in the downstream region. This indicates that pesticide runoff into surface water is a likely method of exposure,” Skidmore explained.
The study is only the tip of the iceberg, according to the researchers. The results did not account for the nonfatal health implications of environmental pesticide exposure, including cases of ALL that are successfully treated, other forms of cancer, and noncancerous diseases that result from pesticide exposure.
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