Pesticide Poisonings in Developing Countries
Severe cases of acute pesticide poisoning are rare in industrialised countries, yet are very prevalent in developing countries, causing tens of thousands of deaths every year.
What are the reasons for this disparity?
Toxicity of chemicals
Many pesticides that are banned for use in Europe are readily available in developing countries (legally and illegally). It could be argued that this reflects more intractable pest problems in the South, but it is also true that for governments of developing countries, chemical safety is often seen as a low priority. Poor farmers usually prefer cheaper, but older and ‘dirtier’ products.
Poor pesticide handling practices
Farmers lack training, information, and appropriate equipment which are basic prerequisites for the sound use of pesticides. Many poor smallholder farmers cannot afford protective equipment, so they regularly spray themselves by accident and experience far higher exposures than in industrialised countries. These exposures are also far higher than those assumed by pesticide manufacturers and regulators in safety tests.
Illiteracy and lack of training
Farmers who cannot read pesticide labels are unable to apply basic instructions on protection, dosage, and use (e.g. post harvest intervals), so rely on word of mouth from retailers, other farmers, or extension agents. They commonly mix cocktails of different chemicals, including illegally purchased products which are highly likely to be counterfeited and ineffective. A downward spiral of pest resistance forces farmers to use ever higher quantities of ever more toxic products, putting themselves at risk and adding to resistance problems.
Access to toxic chemicals
Most poor farmers store their pesticides at home, in bedrooms or kitchens, and reuse the containers to store water, oil, petrol etc. Newspapers in Africa carry small news items about accidental deaths, sometimes of whole families who have been killed at one meal. Toddlers are frequently involved as they play or drink from the ‘empty’ bottles. Suicides are also common and greatly facilitated by the extremely easy access by anyone to immediately toxic products.
Poor health care
Pesticide poisoning symptoms are frequently misdiagnosed (for example as bouts of malaria) and left untreated. Access to healthcare is generally poor, and in many rural locations with no hospitals, health centres or clinics are ill equipped and trained to recognise and treat pesticide poisoning cases. Chronic symptoms caused by pesticides are entirely ignored by communities and health services, which struggle to cope with more immediate health issues. However, certain pesticides are known to have immuno-suppressing effects which could increase vulnerability to HIV/AIDS, malaria and other killer diseases.