The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) held a side event on the occasion of the Fifth Conference of the Parties to the Rotterdam Convention (COP 5) that took place in Geneva from 20 to 24 June 2011. The Conference was attended by more than 500 representatives from countries all over the world to discuss hazardous chemicals, including pesticides, and it offered an excellent opportunity to bring together scientists of different areas to discuss a particular facet of pesticide exposure.
The side event 'Vulnerable groups and pesticide exposure' focused on the exposure to pesticides of vulnerable groups, giving special attention to children working in agriculture and child labour.
Agriculture is a sector heavily dependent on the use of pesticides. Furthermore, 60% of the world’s child labour takes place in agriculture.
Presentations and videos by FAO, ILO and WHO were followed by a panel discussion chaired by Peter Hurst, a specialist in the field of international health and safety for workers, with the participation of Eve Crowley (FAO), Frank Hagemann and Paola Termine (ILO), Ruth Etzel (WHO) and Christine Fuell (Rotterdam Convention Secretariat, FAO). More than 60 participants from countries and observers attending the COP meeting participated in the event.
FAO. Children and women often constitute a very important part of the workforce in agriculture, especially in Africa where they represent about 70% of the rural workforce. These vulnerable groups can be at risk to suffer more adverse effects from pesticides than men for cultural and physiological reasons.
ILO. There is a strong correlation between poverty, vulnerable groups and exposure in the work place: the very poor are more vulnerable because they have little capacity to appreciate and assess risks and hazards associated to pesticides, which are often applied without protection or training.
WHO. Even if safety limits set when testing chemicals apply to all groups, there is no specific approach related to children and women, such as different standards or limits; the existing limits are considered to include the protection of everyone, albeit with a certain margin of uncertainty.
During the panel discussion it was emphasised that prevention is essential. The issues of the poor and vulnerable can be addressed by awareness raising campaigns at grassroots level, legislation and regulations that take into account hazardous pesticides and sound enforcement of such legislation and regulations, including controls and inspections.
There is a need to strengthen data collection at the field level on the use of pesticides and related poisoning incidents in order to create awareness among and a link to decision-making institutes at the national level, such as pesticide registrars.
FAO, ILO and WHO deal with agriculture, labour and health, respectively. They also all deal with education and awareness. The panellists expressed their will to join efforts and take on complementary roles, as the challenges concerning the well-being of populations and the need to protect the health of vulnerable groups from the risks caused by hazardous pesticides are enormous. Synergies between organizations are one of the ways forward to make agriculture a sustainable and healthy workplace.
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