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Farm women stand a good chance of getting cancer


by Michael Raine

Western Producer Newsfeature Service


Women who live their whole lives on the farm are more likely to get certain types of cancer than the general population, and possibly even their own male partners.

Studies conducted in Saskatchewan and Nebraska indicate there is need for further research.

A study by Helen McDuffie, at the Centre for Agricultural Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, indicates the longer women live on the farm the more risk they have. The study's first findings were released in the spring of 1992.

A more advanced analysis is beginning to provide researchers with information that leads them to confirm some of their earlier assumptions. The full analysis will be released in June.

"The types of cancers we are encountering are very rare in the general population and finding them in a select group of people is pretty convincing. Something is affecting women who live their whole lives on the farm," said McDuffie.

The study was relatively small with 306 women taking part, so any incidence of cancer was important.

There are only a few types of cancer where farmers have been found to be at a greater risk than the general population, including non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, soft tissue sarcoma, cancer of the skin and lip, prostate cancer and multiple myeloma.

"We found that the risk of developing these cancers decreased with time away from the farm," said McDuffie.

The risk increased in women who experienced the following factors - water supplies provided by shallow wells, storing pesticide-contaminated clothing in the home, washing the contaminated clothing with their regular laundry, entering fields shortly after spraying and mixing of pesticides in dairy barns and enclosed spaces.

A Nebraska study on cancer and pesticides, by Sheila Hoar Zahm of the National Cancer Institute in Maryland, found an increased incidence of multiple myeloma in women who handle pesticides, but not in men. This type of cancer is usually evenly dispersed between men and women.

She also found that non-Hodgkin's lymphoma incidence was not directly tied to pesticide use, but a multi-variant analysis showed when combined with a family history of cancer the occurrence rate was very high. The study is due to be published soon.

"Dr. Zahm's results are very interesting because this shows we may be dealing with some people who are more susceptible to the cancer. Everybody uses 2-4D and only a few people develop the cancer. We have the family history information for the Saskatchewan study but we have not finished our analysis of it yet."

The Saskatchewan study confirms that pesticide exposure alone is not the cause of the non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

"It appears that no one factor is responsible, but many factors in combination are the cause," said McDuffie.

"In the past, funding for studies into the agricultural health risks to women was not as available because we didn't have enough information to show that women were exposed. People thought we should put the money into studies on men, we knew they were exposed.

"The fact we have evidence of a link between farm life and cancer in women with such a small study shows the importance of the research. We hope to be able to continue our research with funding under the federal green plan . . . I think we've proven an environmental link."

"The next small study we would like to do would be an environmental assessment of the (shallow drinking water) wells involved in our last study . . . We would look at herbicide concentrations and heavy metals from manure and pesticides."


Copyright 1993 REAP Canada

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