Farm workers need to be better protected against pesticides
FAO and UNEP call for stronger safety measures
22 September 2004, Geneva/Rome -- Governments will need to strengthen the protection available to agricultural workers in order to contain - or better yet reduce - the number of pesticide poisonings that farmers suffer, FAO and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) said today.
An estimated one to five million cases of pesticide poisoning occur every year, resulting in several thousand fatalities among agricultural workers. Most of these poisonings occur in the developing world where safe health standards can be inadequate or non-existent. Although these countries use only 25% of global pesticide production, they account for a staggering 99% of the related deaths.
The vast majority of these poisoning cases involve farmers and farm workers. This is not surprising since farm workers have the greatest direct contact with these chemicals, applying them on crops and working in fields or orchards where pesticides are used.
The families of farmers, and particularly children and infants, are also extremely vulnerable. In many countries, children may have to help out on family-owned farms where pesticides are used, or they may be obliged to transport goods treated with pesticides for local businesses.
In developed countries, the most hazardous pesticides are either banned or strictly controlled, and agricultural workers who handle pesticides wear protective clothing and equipment.
This is not always the case in many developing countries, where too often workers lack appropriate equipment, or the climate is too hot and humid to wear such clothing comfortably. Their spraying equipment may leak, and because workers may not have easy access to washing facilities they often wear contaminated clothing throughout the day, eating and drinking with contaminated hands.
An example of the particular risks facing developing country farm workers comes from Senegal. Several years ago, Government officials began to hear about, and subsequently to "map", mysterious cases of poisoning in rural areas: fevers, chest and abdominal pains, vomiting, insomnia and even death. These investigations pointed the finger at a specific pesticide formulation applied on seeds as a powder by peanut farmers.
While such powdered formulations may be safely used in developed countries, where seeds are often treated and planted mechanically, they are riskier in a country like Senegal, where agriculture tends to be manual. In rural areas, the treated seeds were handled directly, protective clothing was not usually worn, because is was often not available, and some farmers even bit the shells to release the peanuts.
As this case demonstrates, the risk factors that contribute to pesticide poisonings in developing countries are often out of the workers' direct control. Farmers must therefore rely on governments to take additional measures to reduce the risks to which they are exposed.
Recognizing their responsibility, governments are meeting in Geneva this week to consider, among other things, adding eight new pesticides to the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent (PIC) Procedure for certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade.
The Rotterdam Convention's requirement that exporters obtain "prior informed consent" from potential importers before proceeding already apply to DDT and 21 other dangerous pesticides (plus five industrial chemicals).
"There is a widespread awareness that farm workers are at particular risk when pesticides are used improperly or when accidents occur," said Louise Fresco, FAO Assistant Director-General, Agriculture Department, which, together with UNEP, provides the secretariat of the Convention.
"FAO assists countries in West Africa to protect their crops from a massive desert locust upsurge. In this stage of the campaign, there is no other option but using substantial quantities of pesticides. In this context, the Organization takes all measures to provide farm workers and others involved in the campaign with adequate protection," she said.
"The Rotterdam Convention will play a major role in empowering governments to ensure that only those pesticides that they can safely manage enter the country and that pesticides which are not appropriate to local conditions and technologies are excluded," she said.
The pesticides now being considered for inclusion on the Convention's PIC list are: binapacryl; DNOC and its salts; ethylene dichloride; ethylene oxide; monocrotophos; parathion; toxaphene and dustable powder formulations containing a combination of benomyl at or above 7 per cent, carbofuran at or above 10 per cent and thiram at or above 15 per cent.
If added, they would join the following 22 pesticides: 2,4,5-T, aldrin, captafol, chlordane, chlordimeform, chlorobenzilate, DDT, 1,2-dibromoethane (EDB), dieldrin, dinoseb, fluoroacetamide, HCH, heptachlor, hexachlorobenzene, lindane, mercury compounds, and pentachlorophenol, plus certain formulations of methamidophos, methyl-parathion, monocrotophos, parathion, and phosphamidon.
Information Officer, FAO
(+39) 06 5705 3105
Information Officer, UNEP Geneva
(+41) 22 917 8242/8196/8244
(+41) 79 409 1528 (cell)
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