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Pesticide misuse affects millions each year

7 August 2013 | By Claire Meeghan

The deaths of 23 primary school children in Bihar, northern India, highlight the potentially devastating consequences of incorrect pesticide storage.

The children died from eating poisoned food, allegedly caused by using a kitchen receptacle for pouring cooking oil that had been used for pesticide.

Pesticides in Ghana  
Farmer Thomas Ndebugri in Ghana sprays his crops with organic, chemical-free pesticides.

Pesticides and food contamination

During a trip to northern Ghana recently, I heard of similar cases involving pesticides and food being kept in careless proximity.

According to Pesticide Action Network UK (Pan), part of a global group of more than 600 organisations campaigning against pesticide use, haphazard pesticide storage and misuse is a menace across the global south.

Harrowing story from Ghana

In Ghana, one harrowing story involved a farmer in Walewale, in the West Mamprusi district, who transported pesticides on the back of his bicycle, tying the container holding chemicals next to a sack of maize flour he had bought to feed his family.

That oversight led to his death and those of eight of his relatives. The story, I was to learn, was by no means a one-off.

Ghana's pesticide crisis

Last year, Christian Aid partner Northern Presbyterian Agricultural Services (NPAS) in Ghana published a report, Ghana's pesticide crisis: the need for further government action (PDF), which revealed that pesticides, some of them banned or restricted, were frequently kept near food stores in farming areas.

The practice was believed to have caused the deaths of 15 farmers in late 2010.

Deaths from pesticide poisoning

Pan says that due to underreporting, the number of deaths from pesticide poisoning worldwide can only be estimated, with 99% of fatalities believed to be in developing countries. Its 2010 report, Communities in peril: global report on health impacts of pesticide use in agriculture (PDF), puts the number affected each year anywhere between one million and 41 million people.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says acute pesticide poisoning affects three million people and accounts for 20,000 unintentional deaths a year.

Labelling and protective clothing

Despite Ghana's death toll, many farmers I spoke to were unaware of the hazards of unsafe pesticide use, and had suffered a range of problems because of misuse.

They freely used pesticides on their crops although the instructions were often in French, which many could not understand. This lack of clarity was particularly dangerous in a situation where mixing the wrong amounts, or incorrect combinations, of chemicals could be deadly.

Few agricultural workers have the right kind of protective clothing, which is expensive and not always available. Basic precautions, such as failing to wear gloves or tuck trousers into boots, preventing the chemicals coming into contact with skin, were ignored.

Impotency and risk to children

There were anecdotal reports of impotency among male farmers who had used pesticides for a prolonged period. One farmer who was said to have sprayed 10 acres every day for five years had apparently been diagnosed infertile.

According to the NPAS report, pesticides are potentially more dangerous to female farmers than to men because women's skin is more absorbant.

Although the deaths highlighted in the report were the result of seepage into food stocks, another problem is that many farming families reuse pesticide containers, rinsing them before using them to keep food or water.

Children are at particularly high risk because far lower concentrations of chemicals will trigger adverse health effects.

Raising awareness

NPAS has spent the past three years raising awareness in farming communities about the correct storage and use of pesticides, and is currently being funded through the UK Government's UK Aid Match scheme. It encourages farmers to use alternative organic pesticides, such as pepper, lemongrass, garlic, neem extracts and other natural plant extracts.

It has also sought to engage the government through the agriculture subcommittee of the Ghana parliament, to strengthen the country's laws and policies for enhanced enforcement on proper marketing, handling and use of pesticides.

Al-Hassan Mahama, deputy programme manager at NPAS, says the government is starting to listen, though banned chemicals are available, and some pesticides cleared for use by the government should not have been approved. He believes the government, customs and police need to better co-ordinate on the issue.

Education

Education and promoting alternatives to pesticides are ongoing in farming communities in northern Ghana, he says, but need greater support.

Pan is campaigning globally for policies and standards that ensure 'chemicals are used only in ways that preserve the health of communities and protect the integrity of the environment for present and future generations'.

This would include a ban on those substances deemed highly hazardous.

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Christian Aid's work in Ghana.

Read Samson's story: organic farming methods are increasingly ending poor farmers' reliance on dangerous chemical pesticides, improving their health and their livelihoods.

Claire's blog was also published on The Guardian Poverty Matters blog.

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About the author

Clare Meeghan

Clare Meeghan is a press officer for Christian Aid specialising in food security, resilience and local enterprise.

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