The study, named the Campagne Nationale Exploratoire des Pesticides (CNEP, the national exploration campaign into pesticides) was the first of its kind in France.
It was led by national food and environment safety agency l’Agence Nationale de Sécurité Sanitaire de l’Alimentation, de l’Environnement et du Travail (Anses), environmental institute l’Institut National de l’Environnement Industriel et des Risques (Ineris) and the air quality network Associations Agréées de Surveillance de la Qualité de l’Air (MASQUA), with air monitoring network Atmo France.
The results were published on Thursday July 2.
In total, the study found 75 substances in the air, including 32 judged to be “a priority” due to their danger and toxicity.
These included glyphosate, folpel (more often known as “vine fungicide”, and deemed carcinogenic by the World Health Organisation) and lindane. The latter is an insecticide that has been banned since 1998.
The study used samples taken from 50 sites across France, including on the mainland and overseas territories; and across different types of areas, including 50% urban / semi-urban, and 50% rural.
The rural and farm area sites were also categorised by field crops (26%), vineyards (18%), arboriculture (20%), vegetable crops (10%), and livestock farming (6%); the rest uncategorised.
Most of the samples were taken at least 150-200 metres away from residential areas, meaning that the risk to these residents - often the first to be exposed to pesticides in the air - was not considered in the study. Another study, dubbed PestiRiv, by health body Santé Publique France, is set to evaluate this.
Around 100,000 samples were analysed.
‘Further investigation required as priority’
And while Anses said that the results did not suggest “in view of current knowledge, a major health problem associated with the exposure of the general population via outdoor air”, it did say that "further investigation is required" into 32 of the substances found.
Of these, the first priority is to investigate the “lindane situation”. Anses said that this insecticide is “considered to be one of the most dangerous substances (with carcinogen effects, toxic, and with proven endocrine disruptors)”.
Despite being banned since 1998, lindane was found in 80% of the samples collected (rising to 90% in urban areas).
Glyphosate, the controversial herbicide by Bayer (which bought its original manufacturer Monsanto), was found in 56% of samples, despite clear links having been drawn between its use and increased risk of cancer. Glyphosate was one nine substances “frequently found” - meaning it was present in at least 20% of samples.
Yet, it was also found in the weakest concentration on average, when compared to other substances.
Anses will now use the results to investigate why certain substances continue to be present in the air, and also to estimate the possible cumulative exposure risk to humans (including via the respiratory system, food system, and skin).
It is also set to investigate eight other banned substances (epoxiconazole, fenarimol, iprodione, linuron, pentachlorophenol, chlorothalonil, chlorpyrifos-ethyl and oxadiazon).
Seasonal variations and future surveillance
But an expert "close to the study", speaking to Le Monde newspaper, has criticised Anses’ approach. In a statement, they said: “It is easy to attack products that are already banned, but what about the others, which are still widely-used?”
The study has also been criticised for failing to account for seasonal variations and local differences. For example, the average presence of folpel is at 3 ng/m3 in a vineyard area, but this can soar to 100 ng/m3 in the weeks of treatment during June and September.
Similar variations can be seen for the use of prosulfocarb and major field crops from October to December, and from April to June.
Anses has said that “extra work by experts” is still needed for all “priority” substances.
Emmanuelle Drab-Sommesous, director at Atmo Grand-Est and pesticides manager at Atmo France, said: “At the right moment, we will need to speed up regulatory and sustained surveillance of pesticides found in the air, and [compare them] to levels for health.”
The air monitoring groups have called for more sites to be sampled, with a view to producing a “local, trustworthy and representative” image of pesticide use.
They have also called for a centralised, national platform of phytopharmaceutical products, to monitor their purchase and use, and for local environmental health policies to also consider pesticide air levels.
Controversy in France
Pesticide use is controversial in France, with farmers and environmental campaigners locked in a battle for the use of chemicals, especially when used on crops situated close to residential and urban areas.
Many mayors across the country have attempted to ban or limit the use of some pesticides in their communes, leading to court battles as the State has argued that mayors do not have the authority to do this.
In December 2019, the government imposed a new law saying that dangerous pesticides would be legally required to be spread at least 20 metres away from inhabited homes and buildings from January 1 this year, but this buffer areas dropped to a distance of 5-10 metres for other crops and chemicals.
Last year, President Macron said that he would like to "move towards greater management of pesticide spreading zones" due to "the consequences on public health".
But campaigners have said that the government’s stance does “not go far enough”
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