Can exposure to pesticides cause cancer?


In recent years, few environmental issues have raised as much public concern as the use of and exposure to pesticides, particularly regarding children's health.

Health researchers have made links between household pesticide use and children's illnesses. According to an analysis by the American Academy of Pediatrics, children exposed to insecticides used indoors had a significantly higher risk of developing leukemia and lymphomas. Additionally, the analysis found there was a noticeable link between childhood brain tumors and home exposure to pesticides or herbicides.

Many of these increased risks are reportedly greater than those observed in studies of pesticide-exposed adults, suggesting that children may be more sensitive to the potentially carcinogenic effects of pesticides.

Recent findings on pesticide exposure and retinoblastoma

Recent research, published in the International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health, suggests that certain types of prenatal pesticide exposure from living near agricultural fields may contribute to the development of childhood retinoblastoma, a rare eye tumor found in young children. Retinoblastoma affects the retina and is most commonly diagnosed in children under five. This concern is echoed by findings from the Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA), highlighting the heightened risks rural families living near agricultural areas may face due to frequent pesticide applications.


A UCLA-led study identified specific pesticides that increase the risk of retinoblastoma. The study found that children prenatally exposed to acephate and bromacil had a higher risk of developing unilateral retinoblastoma (cancer in one eye). Exposure to pymetrozine and kresoxim-methyl was associated with an increased risk of all types of retinoblastoma.

The researchers used land use data and pesticide use reports to determine the locations of possible pesticide exposure. They compared children with retinoblastoma to a control group of children with California birth certificates. They found that those with cancer were more likely to have been born in areas near pesticide applications. 

Pesticides can increase cancer risk by disrupting hormones, damaging DNA, turning genes on and off, and causing inflammation, according to PAN.

Understanding pesticide exposure and childhood cancer risk

Pesticides include many chemicals—such as insecticides, herbicides, fungicides and rodenticides. Children can be exposed to these chemicals through their skin, by inhaling them or by ingesting contaminated food and water. Exposure can occur at home, in the yard, at school or from nearby agricultural areas, and is influenced by a child's developmental stage.

As explained in The Canadian Partnership for Children's Health and Environment (CPCHE), cancer is a condition of abnormal cell growth, uncontrolled by the body's regular regulatory mechanisms. The rapid cell division seen during childhood, especially in utero, increases the likelihood of mutations that could lead to cancer. Children are particularly vulnerable due to their increased exposure and absorption rates of toxic substances, immature bodily systems, including the immune system, and their longer expected lifespan compared to adults.


Several studies highlight the correlation between pesticide exposure and increased cancer risks in children. Research drawing on parental interviews indicates that exposure linked to parental occupations, during pregnancy or in early childhood elevates the risk of developing childhood cancer. Parents' reports of pesticide use at home, according to the aforementioned studies, correlate well with measurable pesticide residues in household dust and specific pesticide types utilized.

Adding to these concerns, a comprehensive study published in the National Library of Medicine offers an in-depth look at the molecular impacts of common pesticides—specifically imidacloprid and glyphosate—on human cells. This research reveals that these substances can trigger oxidative stress and substantial cytotoxic reactions within human cell lines, leading to severe disruptions in cell membrane integrity and cellular metabolism. The study highlights how these chemicals can raise the risk of cancer, and cause cellular damage and genetic mutations, thereby emphasizing the need for cautious and restricted use of pesticides, particularly in environments frequented by children.

Neurological impacts of pesticides during developmental stages

While the link between pesticides and increased cancer risk in children is documented through a growing body of research, the potential harm extends beyond these immediate threats. Moreover, research into the neurological impacts of pesticides reveals additional layers of risk, particularly during critical periods of neurodevelopment. A narrative review published in the Environmental Research journal outlines how low-level pesticide exposure during pregnancy and lactation is closely linked to neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This exposure disrupts key biological processes like acetylcholinesterase inhibition and gut microbiota balance, and alters neuronal morphology, synaptic function and glial cell behavior—changes that are also observed in ASD. 

Safer alternatives to toxic pesticides

In response to the growing concerns over chemical pesticide use, safer and more sustainable alternatives are available that reduce potential health risks. 


Dr. Killigan's offers non-toxic pest control solutions designed to be safe for the environment and your family. These products leverage mechanical methods and natural ingredients, avoiding the harmful side effects associated with traditional pesticides. Importantly, Dr. Killigan’s products are exempt from EPA registration under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), a designation reserved for products considered to pose minimal risk. Learn more about this EPA exemption: 

    Dr. Killigan’s products are particularly effective because they focus on interrupting the pest life cycle without using dangerous chemicals. For instance, their pantry moth traps use pheromones to attract and capture pests, offering a chemical-free solution to a common household problem. Such alternatives safeguard our health and minimize toxic residues in our surroundings. Furthermore, Dr. Killigan's commitment to transparency is evident as they disclose all ingredients—both active and inert—and provide detailed information on their effects and safe use. Read more about pesticide labels and the safety of these ingredients here: 

      Towards a healthier future 

      As the evidence mounts, the relationship between pesticide exposure and serious health risks in children—from cancer to neurological disorders—becomes clearer. By fostering awareness and choosing less harmful methods, we can protect our most vulnerable populations and preserve their health and development. 

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