New visual guide to protect children from pesticides

Raising awareness of risks and ways to reduce them

13 May 2015, Rome - With the help of a new training guide developed by FAO and the International Labour Organization (ILO), extension workers in Africa and elsewhere are engaging with rural communities to reduce children's exposure to toxic pesticides used in farming.

Nearly 100 million boys and girls between 5 and 17 years old are engaged in child labour in agriculture, according to ILO statistics. Many are directly exposed to toxic chemicals while working on the farm. But children are also exposed when they help with family chores or play, and through the food they eat and the water they drink.

Children are far more sensitive to pesticides than adults. Exposure can result in acute poisoning and sickness immediately after contact. But often, it also has longer-term, chronic impacts on their health and development.

Limiting pesticide use and promotion of non-toxic alternatives are important for reducing exposure, but education is equally crucial.

Protect children from pesticides!, FAO and ILO's new visual guide, provides an easy accessible training tool. It helps agricultural extension workers, rural educators, labour inspectors, and producer organizations in teaching farmers and their families how to identify and minimize risks at home and on the farm. They also learn how to recognize and respond to signs of toxic exposure.

The user-friendly guide has three main modules: how children are exposed to pesticides, what the health risks are and why children are particularly vulnerable, and what can be done to reduce those risks.

Growing interest

"The tool was initially developed in Mali, where it is now widely used by extension workers, farmer field schools, labour inspectors, and producer organizations", said Rob Vos, Director of FAO's Social Protection Division. "Its use is also expanding in Niger and other African countries. We are seeing growing interest from other regions. The guide is not only raising awareness that something must be done, but also showing what needs to be done."

Not all situations are the same. The guide is not only available in several languages (currently in English, French, Portuguese and Spanish, and a Russian version will be available soon), but also adapted to different regional contexts, including Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean and Asia Pacific. The graphics and illustrations are adapted accordingly as well.

Support from the Rotterdam Convention

The effort to adapt the visual guide and promote its wider use is being supported by the Rotterdam Convention, a multilateral treaty to promote shared responsibility in relation to imports of hazardous chemicals. FAO and the United Nations Environment Programme jointly serve as the Secretariat for the convention.

"This is a good example of how the normative work of a convention can contribute to reaching out to the most vulnerable groups and make a difference to their lives" according to Christine Fuell, FAO's Coordinator for the Rotterdam Convention. "The colourful illustrations are built on local knowledge and refer to very concrete and real situations, such that they also appeal to children, raising their own awareness of the risks posed by pesticides."

Why children are at greater risk

Children are particularly vulnerable to pesticide exposure for various biological and behavioural reasons.

They breathe in more air than adults and so take in more dust, toxic vapours, and droplets of spray. Relative to their body weight, children need to eat and drink more than adults, and if food is contaminated, they absorb more toxins. The surface area of a child's skin per unit of body mass is greater than that of an adult, and their skins are more delicate. All these factors can lead to greater absorption of chemicals, and children's organs are less able to detoxify pesticides because they are not yet fully developed, according to the guide.

Young children often play on the ground, put things in their mouths and are attracted to colourful containers, all common behaviours that increase risk.

Photo: ©FAO/Yasuyoshi Chiba
A worker spraying pesticides on a local farm in Betroka Region, Southern Madagascar.