Pesticides: stakeholders debate epidemiological studies

18 February 2015

Nearly 50 representatives from academia, regulatory bodies, NGOs, industry and other interested groups attended a successful scientific event organised by EFSA to discuss the use of epidemiological studies and how to integrate them into the risk assessment of pesticides.  

The meeting in Paris was opened by José Tarazona, Head of EFSA’s Pesticides Unit, who explained that the Authority has just started work on an important project related to the use of epidemiological studies in pesticide risk assessment, and wanted to seek views from stakeholders at the start of its deliberation. “These studies are a key part of the regulatory process for the approval and renewal of active pesticide substances. The challenge for us all is to improve both the quality and the use of epidemiological studies in risk assessment,” he said.

Karin Nienstedt, representing the European Commission, said the workshop was a good opportunity to take stock and see how such studies could be best used in the regulatory context. Lars Niemann, from the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR), then introduced the first plenary session by emphasising that epidemiological studies reflect a much more complex environment than animal studies carried out in controlled laboratory conditions, and that bringing clarity to this area would be a step forward for regulators. “The window might be clean or dirty. Hopefully this conference will help to clean it,” he said.

Delegates heard about activities on pesticide epidemiology being carried out by EFSA, the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety (ANSES), and other bodies within and outside Europe, as well as representatives of the European Crop Protection Association and NGOs. They then broke up into smaller groups for more detailed discussions.


In recent years an abundance of epidemiological studies investigating possible associations between pesticide exposure and human health outcomes have become available in the open literature. In 2013, EFSA published a report on a systematic review of studies published between 2006 and 2012 which showed a statistically significant association between exposure to pesticides and health outcomes such as liver cancer, breast cancer, type II diabetes, childhood leukaemia and Parkinson’s disease. The findings were in line with those contained in a report by the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM).

However, the EFSA report highlighted a number of methodological limitations in the epidemiological studies, including a large heterogeneity of data, a lack of direct exposure estimates, and use of generic pesticide definitions. These make it difficult to draw firm conclusions about the associations for the majority of the outcomes studied. The availability of more robust, statistically sound studies presenting accurate information on actual exposure would bolster the regulation of pesticides in the European Union.

A full event report will be published on the EFSA website.


Programme (201.18 KB)