No link locally between pesticides, cancer, UF expert says

Published: Sunday, March 24, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, March 23, 2013 at 8:28 p.m.

The rural areas of North Central Florida appear to be driving high cancer mortality rates, but that doesn't necessarily mean that farming communities or agricultural practices are responsible.

According to Dr. Mark Mossler, a doctor of plant medicine and a pesticide information officer at the University of Florida, pesticide usage in this part of the state “is not that drastic” because the predominant plants grown here — including peanuts, pine straw and hay — don't require it.

Even in areas where plants have been heavily treated with chemicals — such as fungicides used to treat strawberries in Starke — residual levels of the chemicals have never been alarming, Mossler said.

“The numbers seem to support that the residues are falling ... sometimes not even detectable at all,” Mossler said.

Mossler added that insecticides — on sweet corn and other vegetable crops — are used more heavily in the Southern part of the state.

In any case, a direct association between these chemicals and cancer has not been established, Mossler said. But ongoing studies are probing the possible connections.

The Agricultural Health Study in Iowa and North Carolina looks at farmers and their spouses and cancer incidence and mortality.

“The only cancer that's really been shown consistently elevated in the rural area is prostate cancer. We have found some link with that with pesticides,” said Charles Lynch, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Iowa who directs the Iowa portion of the Agricultural Health Study.

But even then, that's mainly among people with a family history of prostate cancer, Lynch said.

As for farmers themselves, Lynch said they traditionally have been a fairly healthy lot. Old school farmers exercised regularly as part of their jobs, and rarely smoked, he said. “It's an occupational hazard to smoke,” Lynch said. “They could burn down their livelihood.”

Also, typically farmers — at least in Iowa — have health insurance. They often secure second jobs just for that purpose, Lynch said. “This is a way for them to get some insurance. Farming is their first love.”

Lifestyle factors

The jury is still out on how much our environment might influence our risk of cancer, but how we treat ourselves plays into our risk, too.

The North Central Florida Cancer Control Collaborative Report included data on behaviors such as binge drinking, consumption of fruits and vegetables, smoking, obesity and screenings.

Whether people get screened for prostate, colorectal and breast and other gynecologic cancers is the most closely linked behavior to cancer risk.

The data showed that in North Central Florida, screenings are generally lower than the state average. Tobacco use is also higher in most of the counties within North Central Florida compared with the state average, with the exception of Alachua County, which reported 14.4 percent of adult smokers, compared with 17.1 percent in Florida. Dixie County had the highest percentage of smokers at 36.9 percent.

Just how much lifestyle influences cancer incidence and mortality rates is still up for debate. Jeff Feller, CEO of WellFlorida Council, which produced the report, said North Central Florida's high cancer mortality rates may point to “some really excessive behavioral issues. That's one of the areas our collaborative (group) will be focusing on.”

Contact Kristine Crane at 338-3119 or

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