SCIENTISTS have called for a government crackdown on pesticides that they warn are putting pregnant women at greater risk of having children with cancer.
The researchers say studies have shown that pesticide exposure either before conception or during pregnancy increases the risk of childhood cancer.
Writing in a report for the Chemicals, Health and Environment Monitoring (Chem) Trust, they have called on the government to step up action to ban the most harmful pesticides and to bring in a duty for the public to be informed before spraying takes place.
Professor Andrew Watterson of Stirling University, one of the authors, warned that as well as putting children at risk, the pesticides posed a threat to farmers.
Previous studies show that pesticide exposures are associated with some cases of non Hodgkin's lymphoma, leukaemia, prostate cancer and other hormone related cancers.
Research has also suggested that farmers are at greater risk of developing certain cancers than the general population.
The report, "A review of the role pesticides play in some cancers: Children, farmers and pesticide users at risk?" argued that as certain cancers have increased dramatically in recent years, environmental factors must be partly to blame, because genes in a population do not change that quickly.
It highlights that in the 35 years up to 1998, childhood cancer in Britain increased by 35 per cent.
Over the past 30 years, the blood cancer non-Hodgkin's lymphoma has more than doubled, testicular cancer has doubled, breast cancer has increased by two thirds in women and prostate cancer has tripled.
Although this is partly likely to be due to better diagnosis levels, the report authors believe environmental factors, including pesticides, have played a part.
Prof Watterson told The Scotsman it was not realistic to expect the public to be able to avoid farms and other areas where pesticides may be used.
Instead, he said, the government needed to strengthen regulation to remove the risks in the first place.
"There are substitutes available," he said. "There are less hazardous alternatives."
The charity is calling for strict implementation of new EU legislation on pesticides, a legal right for households bordering agricultural land to be notified in advance of any pesticide spraying, buffer zones to be established between spraying areas and homes, schools and other public buildings, and the enforcement of the legal duty to use notices to inform the public before, during and after spraying.
Gwynne Lyons, director of CHEM Trust and co-author of the report, said: "Pesticide exposures may interact with other chemical exposures and genetic factors, to cause cancer.
"Research suggests that pregnant women in particular should avoid direct exposure to pesticides, if possible.
"It is high time that the UK was more supportive of EU proposals to take a tougher approach to reducing exposure to potentially harmful chemicals."
A spokeswoman for Defra said: "Defra ministers base government policy on sound scientific evidence and are considering the implementation of new European rules on pesticides following the recent public consultation."