Farming is a stressful job – uncontrollable weather, physical demands and economic woes intertwine with a personal responsibility for land that often is passed down through generations. But experts say that some of the chemicals used to control pests may make matters worse by changing farmers’ brain chemistry. Recent research has linked long-term use of pesticides to higher rates of depression and suicide. Evidence also suggests that pesticide poisoning – a heavy dose in a short amount of time – doubles the risk of depression.
Is the same thing that's destroying the bees also crippling our farmers?When Ginnie Peters' farmer husband took his own life after a sudden mood shift, she really hit the nail on the head when she said:
These chemicals that farmers use, look what they do to an insect. It ruins their nervous system. What is it doing to the farmer?
No one can deny that farming is drastically different than it was in the 1950s, and today it requires extra demand, complete expertise and the stress of uncertainty. Most farmers don't go into it for high profits.
The EPA, however, has long denied that the pesticide exposure they experience is directly tied to psychological symptoms, mental illness, behavioral changes and higher rates of suicide. Even though those are the very symptoms caused by such exposure, and the results of the EPA's own studies, decades and decades ago, have arrived at the very same conclusion.
Farmers serve our country too – has our government left these unsuspecting service men in a dangerous lurch, the same as military people who come back with mystery illnesses?Lorann Stallones, an epidemiologist and psychology professor at Colorado State University says:
For years there was a high level of denial in the farming community that mental illness exists, period.
But there’s been a shift – partly because there’s more people talking about being mentally incapacitated.
Scientific American has recently reported:
Some research suggests that the chemicals that farmers and their workers spread on fields may alter some of these brain chemicals.
Peters and his wife were among 89,000 farmers and other pesticide applicators in Iowa and North Carolina who have participated in the Agricultural Health Study led by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
Last month, epidemiologist Freya Kamel and her colleagues reported that among 19,000 studied, those who used two classes of pesticides and seven individual pesticides were more likely to have been diagnosed with depression. Those who used organochlorine insecticides were up to 90 percent more likely to have been diagnosed with depression than those who hadn’t used them. For fumigants, the increased risk was up to 80 percent.
The authors who wrote in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives say:
Our study supports a positive association between depression and occupational pesticide use among applicators… and suggests several specific pesticides that deserve further investigation in animal studies and other human populations,
While previous studies have only asked participants once about their depression – this one asked twice – once years back and again in 2010. It also included a large pool of farmers, meaning that people couldn't really dismiss the study later for saying it was too small for consequence.
The group came to the same conclusions when they studied the group between 1993 – 1997.
Farmers with the highest number of lifetime exposure days to pesticides were 50 percent more likely to later have a depression diagnosis.
Of course, after all these years, no one's brave enough to say the P-word – Proof. Even though they show that psychological issues in rats is possible with exposure. For instance: tests on rats show altered brain cells, neurotransmitters and production of a protective acid. All important aspects of the complexity of brain and hormone health.
Last year, it became glaringly apparent to researchers that French farmers were twice as likely to seek treatment for depression than those who don't use herbicides. The rate increases with the increase of years using herbicides.
Other health problems linked to depression are also linked to pesticide exposure.
From Scientific American:
For instance, Dr. Beate Ritz, a neurologist and professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that Californians exposed to pesticides are more likely to have Parkinson’s disease. One effect of the neurological disease, characterized by a lack of the chemical dopamine, is depression.
Several studies have linked suicide to pesticide use. In Brazil, workers that used more pesticides were more likely to commit suicide, and in China, a World Health Organization survey of 9,800 people in the rural Zhejiang province revealed that those who stored pesticides in their homes had more than double the risk of having suicidal thoughts.
Wendy Ringgenberg, an assistant professor at the University of Iowa, combed through 19 years of national data and reported that farmers and farm workers were 3.6 times more likely to die of suicide than other professions. However, the study did not examine the causes of suicide.
Interestingly, some of the pesticides linked to depression and suicide in the study are not supposed to be in use. Chemical company giants like Monsanto, Bayer Cropscience and Syngenta say that their products were not included in the study and won't comment on the bigger picture of brain health and long-term pesticide use. Also left from the study were the newer class of pesticides – neonicotinoids, which are implicated for mass bee die-off as they kill the nervous system of exposed insects.
Ginnie Peters' husband was using neonicotinoids – his father had chronic depression as well. Peters was exposed to organophosphates by doing his own crop spraying. Peters had chronic insomnia too.
Ginnie is trying to bring awareness about suicide in farmers, linked to exposure to pesticides.
I don’t have ability to do the science, but I have my gut, and what happened to Matt, it had to be the chemicals.
What the researchers of new studies aren't saying, or do not know, is that this supposed phenomenon has gone on, vastly under the radar for a long, long time.
If you are interested in going down this dark rabbit hole, there are a couple rare and out-of-print books to help start connecting dots. Brain Fog by the late Bruce Haney, who himself was one such horticulturist with depression and behavioral changes that he noticed in his friendly competitors too. He tried desperately to get the attention of Congress in the 1990s and nursed many farmers and servicemen back to health. He cited all the notable EPA studies that knew the psychological connection, but which never led to any thoughtful halt on chemical approval.
Depression is the most common mental disability in the United States. About 7 percent of U.S. adults annually experience at least one two-week or longer stretch of depression, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. There is no national data on whether farmers and their workers are more prone to depression. The causes are complex. There “are millions, even billions, of chemical reactions that make up the dynamic system that is responsible for your mood, perceptions, and how you experience life,” according to a Harvard Medical School report. Some research suggests that the chemicals that farmers and their workers spread on fields may alter some of these brain chemicals.
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