If you’re worried that the fertilizers, pesticides and other chemicals used in lawn and garden care could cause cancer, you can breathe at least a partial sigh of relief. Typical exposure to these materials isn’t enough to significantly increase your cancer risk, experts say.
“By using some basic precautions the average person has little to worry about,” says Lewis E. Foxhall, M.D., vice president of Health Policy at MD Anderson.
Some studies have linked pesticides, especially those containing arsenic, to increased cancer risk. This is more of a concern for agricultural workers, who have chronic exposure. But the average person is generally not exposed enough to see an impact, says Foxhall.
Another potential source of concern is herbicides. These products may contain the chemicals glyphosate or 2,4-D. The International Agency for Research on Cancer recently linked certain herbicides with increased cancer risk, but evidence is limited.
Fertilizers often contain nitrates that may find their way into drinking water. This is more common in agricultural areas and for those who use water from wells. But research is unclear on a link with cancer.
“It’s a good idea to avoid or limit use of these chemicals if you can. If necessary, use them with caution. It’s quite reasonable to be concerned about possible cancer risks like these, and we should do what we can to reduce them,” Foxhall says. “Let’s not forget the much more common cancer risks and proven ways to reduce them.”
Tips to protect yourself
If you’re still concerned about exposure to chemicals, follow these tips to help keep you and your family safe and healthy.
- Avoid exposure by limiting use. If you are using chemicals and pesticides, wear gloves and masks.
- Pregnant women and children in particular should avoid exposure.
- Limit the time you spend in the yard immediately after applying lawn care treatments.
- Always check the label for ingredients and follow the directions on the package.
- If possible, leave it to a professional.
Consider organic gardening or tools and methods that offer an alternative to chemicals.
“One weed control tool I learned about growing up on a farm that is very effective and definitely not associated with cancer risk is the garden hoe,” Foxhall says.
Lower your cancer risk
Foxhall recommends focusing on known carcinogens – things that cause cancer – to help reduce your cancer risk.
- Avoid tobacco. Tobacco use causes 25 to 30 percent of cancer deaths.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise or 75 minutes of more vigorous exercise each week. At meals, fill at least two-thirds of your plate with produce. Avoid excess sugar and processed food.
- Wear sunscreen. To protect your skin and lower your skin cancer risk, apply sunscreen liberally 30 minutes before going in the sun and reapply every two hours. Wear protective clothing and try to stay indoors between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Do not use tanning beds.
- Get screened. Follow MD Anderson’s recommendations for screening exams and talk to your doctor to help determine which exams are right for you. Screening is the best way to catch cancer early, when it’s easiest to treat.
- Know your family history. About 5 to 10 percent of all cancers are inherited. If several of your relatives have had cancer, you and your children may face increased risk of getting the same disease.
- Get the HPV vaccine. The HPV vaccine is safe and effective. The vaccine protects against several types of cancers, including cervical, anal, vulvar, vaginal, penile and oropharyngeal cancers.
“These are things we know work to help limit cancer risk,” Foxhall says. “It’s tried and true.”