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The ticking time bomb: toxic pesticide waste dumps

Corroding metal drums with leaking pesticides. As pesticides deteriorate, they form by-products, which may be more toxic than the original substance

Piles of old and unused pesticides. More than 500 000 tonnes of obsolete pesticides are a threat to millions of people and the environment


FAO experts checking a pesticide dump site. FAO has called upon chemical companies to aid the disposal effort. But so far, companies have contributed little


Huge stocks of toxic pesticide waste
are a serious problem in almost all developing countries and in many countries in transition. More than 500 000 tonnes of old and unused pesticides that have been banned or have expired threaten the environment and the health of millions of people in these countries, FAO warns in a new report. The figures are dramatically higher than previous estimates of around 100 000 tonnes.

While the figure for Africa and the Near East is more than 100 000 tonnes, it is almost 200 000 tonnes for Asia and another 200 000 for Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. FAO is still preparing inventories for Latin America (For a preliminary list of countries with known obsolete pesticide stocks, click here).

"The lethal legacy of obsolete pesticides is alarming, and urgent action is needed to clean up waste dumps," says Alemayehu Wodageneh, FAO expert on obsolete pesticides. "These 'forgotten' stocks are not only a hazard to people's health; they also contaminate water and soil. Leaking pesticides can poison a very large area, making it unfit for crop production."

The waste sites contain some of the most dangerous insecticides in existence. They include aldrin, chlordane, DDT, dieldrin, endrin and heptachlor, which have been banned in most countries, along with organophosphates. As pesticides deteriorate, they form by-products, which may be more toxic than the original substance. In addition to pesticides, waste sites contain contaminated sprayers, empty containers and huge quantities of heavily polluted soil.

"Many stocks are situated near farmers' fields and wells in poor rural areas, as well as near houses, food stores and markets in urban areas," says Mr Wodageneh. "The dumps are often abandoned, unmanaged and in very poor condition." In many cases, pesticides are left in the open or stored in unsubstantial mud and straw structures with earth floors, and numerous containers are corroding. "Toxic substances are leaking into the ground," he adds. "Local people complain about headaches, nausea and coughs."

The pesticide waste has accumulated over more than 30 years, and products are being added continuously, according to the report. Obsolete pesticides have built up because they were not used or were not removed after being banned for health or environmental reasons. In many African countries, for example, dieldrin was used to control locust outbreaks until the late 1980s. After that time, it was decided not to use dieldrin any further, but existing stocks were not removed or used up.

Some formulations are not stable under tropical conditions, causing them to degrade rapidly. In some instances, pesticides were not labelled or were labelled in a language the user could not understand, and, therefore, they were never used.

Pesticides have been provided in the past by international aid agencies with good intentions. But insufficient coordination among aid agencies has been a major factor causing accumulation of excessive supplies, FAO says. In addition, governments of some developing countries, in particular those with state-run economies, have bought pesticides and then failed to use them.

The major pesticide producers are based in Europe, the United States, Japan, China and India. "Large sums of money are involved in pesticide supply," according to the FAO report. "As a result, a variety of hidden interests may play a role in decisions concerning pesticide procurement or donation. Often these interests are not strictly related to the best technical solution to pest problems."

Pesticides sales earn companies more than US$30 billion a year, more than 80 percent of it shared by 8 companies: Aventis, BASF, Bayer, Dow AgroSciences, Dupont, Monsanto, Sumitomo and Syngenta.

Disposal and destruction are expensive -- around US$3 per kilogram or litre, almost all of which has come from governments and aid agencies. So far, less than 3 000 tonnes have been removed in Africa and the Near East. The clean up has mainly been funded by Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, the United States and FAO. FAO currently assists the government of Ethiopia in the biggest clean-up project of dangerous pesticides in Africa. (For an article on Obsolete pesticides threatening communities in Ethiopia, click here).

"Support from industry is crucial for the disposal of pesticides because aid agencies of donor countries cannot cover all the costs," says Mr Wodageneh. FAO has called upon chemical companies represented by the Global Crop Protection Federation to aid the disposal effort. Incineration is currently the only safe and environmentally acceptable method of disposal, and the industry has made a commitment to pay for the incineration of obsolete pesticides. But so far, companies have contributed little, FAO says.

FAO calls upon its member nations to employ environmentally friendly Integrated Pest Management methods and to drastically reduce the use of pesticides where possible. (For more about Integrated Pest Management: Stopping pests without pollution, click here).

Interview with Mr Alemayehu Wodageneh, FAO's Coordinator of the Programme on Obsolete Pesticides, on what are the most urgent actions required right now regarding unwanted and banned pesticide stocks (2min11sec). In Realaudio (269 Kb), in mp3 (1020 Kb)

For more information please contact Press Officer, Erwin Northoff ([email protected]) or FAO's Coordinator of the Programme on Obsolete pesticides, Alemayehu Wodageneh ([email protected])

9 May 2001 

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