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Synthesis/Regeneration 31   (Spring 2003)

Farmers Poisoned Every Minute

Pesticides Threaten Public Health on a Global Scale

Environmental Justice Foundation

A new Environmental Justice Foundation report reveals how each year millions of developing world farmers are poisoned by pesticides, many of which are banned or strictly controlled in the West.

The report, “What’s your poison?” shows how poor regulations and freely available dangerous chemicals, coupled with a widespread ignorance of the risks are contributing to a public health disaster on a global scale.

Cancers linked to pesticide exposure by the studies reviewed include: brain, breast, liver, stomach, bladder, kidney, skin, prostate, rectal, pancreatic, lung, ovarian and testicular cancers, soft-tissue sarcomas, multiple myeloma, leukemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Pesticide exposures are also linked to developmental disorders, birth defects, immunological and neurological disease, and sudden death.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 2002 estimated that there are 500,0000 tons of obsolete pesticides worldwide and 120,000 in Africa alone.

Children are in special danger as, in many countries, they are active in agriculture and participate in crop spraying …

In 2000, Brazil’s Ministry of Health estimated that there are 300,000 poisonings a year and 5000 deaths from agricultural pesticides; the cost of treatment and lost work was estimated at US$540 million. In 1996, the International Labor Organization estimated that pesticides cause 14% of occupational injuries in the agricultural sector, and 10% of fatalities in many countries.

“Some pesticides are now known to disrupt the body’s immune, nervous and hormone systems. Poor people in developing countries routinely face unacceptably high risks of poisoning. The range of human health problems associated with such exposure is truly frightening,” said Dr Mike Shanahan of EJF. Children are in special danger as, in many countries, they are active in agriculture and participate in crop spraying with harmful chemicals. In 2002, the International Institute of Tropical Agri-culture estimated that over 150,000 children apply pesticides in West African cocoa production. Half of Cambodian farmers surveyed by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization said they allowed their children to spray crops. Consumers are also at risk; in a number of countries, sudden deaths have been reported following ingestion of food contaminated with pesticides.

Solutions to these problems exist, but they require concerted efforts from the agrochemical industry, governments, and the international donor community. “The answer lies in reduced risk, reduced use and reduced reliance on pesticides. Consumers need to question the true cost of agricultural produce and governments need to do more to protect people from these devastating chemicals,” said Steve Trent, director of EJF.

EJF is also calling on the pesticide industry and governments in the West to implement initiatives that will reduce the health threats posed by pesticides. The report advocates a phase-out of production of the most dangerous (Class I) pesticides, widespread educational initiatives, and safe elimination of stockpiles of obsolete pesticides.

“Considerably greater corporate involvement is necessary. The billion-dollar pesticide industry continues to market some of the most dangerous pesticides known to humanity and these commonly end up in the countries least capable of implementing safety measures,” said Steve Trent. “Over a decade ago the World Health Organization estimated that around 3 million pesticide poisonings occur every year—that’s over 5 every minute. EJF is concerned that such levels of poisoning continue today. Collaborative action between government, farmers and perhaps above all the pesticide industry must now be taken to drastically reduce this problem,” said Trent.

…around 3 million pesticide poisonings occur every year—that’s over 5 every minute.

In 2000, sales of agricultural pesticides reached $30 billion. The industry is dominated by a handful of Western companies (BASF, Bayer CropScience, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont, FMC, Monsanto, Sumitomo, Syngenta).

In 2002, Pesticide Action Network-Latin America reported that, after a nine-month investigation, a Peruvian Congressional Subcommittee found significant evidence of criminal responsibility by both the agrochemical company Bayer and the Peruvian Ministry of Agriculture in the poisoning of 42 children in the remote Andean village of Tauccamarca in October, 1999. The children were stricken after eating a school breakfast contaminated with the organophosphate pesticide methyl parathion. Twenty-four children died before they could reach medical treatment; 18 others survived with significant long-term health and developmental consequences.

The Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent (PIC) Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade was finalized in 1998. It allows importing countries to publish decisions to exclude chemicals they cannot manage safely. Currently, 31 chemicals are covered by the Convention (21 pesticides, 5 industrial chemicals and 5 severely hazardous pesticide formulations). It will enter into force after the 50th ratification (by January 2002 there were 73 signatories and 36 parties to the Convention; see http://www.pic.int).

The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) addresses use, production and release of chlorinated chemicals (including the pesticides DDT, chlordane and eldrin) whose structure and chemistry allow them to persist in the environment. POPs can dissolve in fat and thus bioaccumulate and biomagnify (increasing in concentration up the food chain). POPs are highly toxic and are implicated in cancer development and reproductive and hormonal disorders. At the time of writing, the Convention had been signed by 151 countries, 25 of which have also ratified it. It will enter into force after the 50th ratification (see http://www.pops.int).

For further information or copies of “What’s Your Poison?” contact (email) info@ejfoundation.org or download the illustrated report directly from http://www.ejfoundation.org/poison.html.

[21 apr 03]

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