Future Generations gives a layer in its fight against pesticides. After pointing out, a year ago, the insufficiency of safety distances to protect residents from agricultural spraying, the association is publishing a report on Tuesday to denounce “loopholes” in the assessment of the risks of these products for the inhabitants who are exposed to them. Pauline Cervan, toxicologist at Future Generations, points to the incomplete models from which the spreading distances are defined.
You have looked closely at the risk assessment for pesticides, why is it important?
This is about how the government wants to protect nearby residents from exposure to pesticides. You should know that this is very recent in France and in Europe. Since 2016 only, for all new European marketing applications or authorization renewals, the risks of pesticides for local residents must be assessed according to a European guide drawn up by the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA ). But for the moment very few products have been because this rule is recent. For all the others already on the market, France has taken national measures. Dangerous products (there are about twenty of them) must be spread at least 20 meters from dwellings. For all other products, including CMR2, which are suspected of being carcinogenic, mutagenic or reprotoxic, the distances range from 10 to 5 meters depending on the type of crop. This was criticized by the Council of State in July 2021, which said that the distances were not large enough for CMR2s and that a minimum of 10 meters was needed regardless of the type of crops. In response, the government wanted to speed up and asked manufacturers to provide risk assessments by the end of October. No-treatment areas will be set based on the results.
In the assessment of the risks associated with pesticides, you point to “flaws” in taking into account the exposure of local residents to these substances. Which ones?
For example, once the product is spread on the fields, the wind can raise dust from the ground, which will go into the houses. This is not calculated in the models, whereas several studies, from Public Health France and Inserm, show that exposure to pesticides through dust is very high among local residents. It is four times higher than those who live far from the fields. Then, pesticide exposures are calculated for winds at 10 km/h whereas in France, farmers have the right to spread their products on days when it blows up to 19 km/h. Another problem: we calculate the acceptable exposure of a person according to his weight. The larger it is, the more we divide the amount of substances received per kilo. The reference weight to protect everyone from the age of 14 is 60 kilos. However, this is underestimating the exposure for all adolescents because at 14 years old, 80% of girls and 76% of boys do not weigh that weight. Even adults never reach it. For children, the weight considered protective is 10 kilos, which excludes babies up to 1 year. However, their behavior encourages exposure: they are on all fours, put their hands in their mouths… Not only thin people, i.e. women and adolescents, are not taken into account, but also children of 0 to 1 year, when they are the most vulnerable.
And on the section dealing with the danger of substances?
These are things that have already been criticized. For example, there is the fact that the exposure is only calculated for the active substance in the product. But the co-formulants, that is to say substances which are not active on the plant but which enter into the composition of the product, can also represent dangers but this is not calculated. Some are suspected carcinogens, others may be toxic by inhalation. We also forget that residents generally do not have just one plot next to their homes and not just one product applied to the plot. Exposure to the cocktail effect of several products is not taken into account. This is super complex, the combinations are endless, but an additional safety factor could be applied to protect both local residents and farmers. This has notably been proposed by the European Commission in the Reach regulation on chemical substances, which is currently being revised.
For you, the evaluations are therefore not reliable…
They are uncertain, and so are the distances. Because several things are not taken into account in the evaluation model. It does not reflect all everyday situations. It is supposed to take into account the worst-case assumptions, in each situation, to protect everyone. But this is not the case. These assessments are therefore uncertain. Not all of the flaws highlighted in the report come from us. Researchers from the CNRS, the National Institute for Agronomic Research, and the University of Bordeaux have raised the same points. EFSA itself recognizes that the model is not perfect and that it is up to the national authorities of each country to take the appropriate management measures. For France, the National Food Safety Agency (Anses) says it trusts Efsa and returns the ball to it. It’s a game of ping pong. Nobody wants to take responsibility for expanding the no-treat zones.
What are your requests?
We would like to make the government and ANSES understand that with the approach they use, they are ignoring all the flaws presented. They are asked not to stick to the strict results of the assessments and to apply the precautionary principle. This amounts to establishing wider safety distances, of the order of 50 meters minimum. We are also asking for a ban on spreading above 10 km/h of wind and more resources for the French Office for Biodiversity, which is in charge of controls.