Landmark 20-Year Study Finds Pesticides Linked to Depression In Farmers - Modern Farmer
There’s a significant correlation between pesticide use and depression, that much is very clear, but not all pesticides. The two types that Kamel says reliably moved the needle on depression are organochlorine insecticides and fumigants, which increase the farmer’s risk of depression by a whopping 90% and 80%, respectively. The study lays out the seven specific pesticides, falling generally into one of those two categories, that demonstrated a categorically reliable correlation to increased risk of depression.
These types aren’t necessarily uncommon, either; one, called malathion, was used by 67% of the tens of thousands of farmers surveyed. Malathion is banned in Europe, for what that’s worth.
I asked whether farmers were likely to simply have higher levels of depression than the norm, given the difficulties of the job — long hours, low wages, a lack of power due to government interference, that kind of thing — and, according to Kamel, that wasn’t a problem at all. “We didn’t have to deal with overreporting [of depression] because we weren’t seeing that,” she says. In fact, only 8% of farmers surveyed sought treatment for depression, lower than the norm, which is somewhere around 10% in this country. That doesn’t mean farmers are less likely to suffer from depression, only that they’re less likely to seek treatment for it, and that makes the findings, if anything, even stronger.
The study doesn’t really deal with exactly how the pesticides are affecting the farmers. Insecticides are designed to disrupt the way nerves work, sometimes inhibiting specific enzymes or the way nerve membranes work, that kind of thing. It’s pretty complicated, and nobody’s quite sure where depression fits in. “How this ultimately leads to depression, I don’t know that anyone can really fill in the dots there,” says Kamel. But essentially, the pesticides are designed to mess with the nerves of insects, and in certain aspects, our own nervous systems are similar enough to those of insects that we could be affected, too. “I don’t think there’s anything surprising about the fact that pesticides would affect neurologic function,” says Kamel, flatly.