Pesticide poisoning is a global health emergency. Every year, hundreds of thousands of farmers, farmworkers and their family members die from acute pesticide poisoning and many millions more suffer illness from poisoning incidents.
The last official World Health Organization estimate of pesticide poisoning was in the 1990s which concluded that around 25 million people are poisoned by pesticides every year, with more than 220,000 deaths, but warned this was likely to be an underestimate. Recent estimates suggest that as many as 17 million people have died from acute pesticide poisoning since the 1960s when synthetic pesticides began to be used widely in Low and Middle Income Countries (LMICs).
Pesticide use has nearly doubled since the WHO estimate, but hard data on the scale of the problem is elusive. Around 84% of pesticide poisonings occur in LMICs where health care coverage is patchy and monitoring systems are inadequate. Many poisoning cases simply do not make it into official health statistics. As a result, pesticide poisoning is a hidden crisis and many policy makers fail to grasp the scale of the problem. Even where governments recognise the importance of the issue, they rarely have enough information to tackle the problem effectively.
We are particularly concerned about the group of pesticides which are classified as ‘Highly Hazardous Pesticides’ (HHPs). According to UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Health Organization (WHO), these are the pesticides that cause ‘particularly high levels of acute or chronic hazards to health or environment.’ Over a decade ago – recognising a ban on use was the most effective way to protect human health and the environment from these chemicals – the FAO called for HHPs to be phased out. Sadly, precious little progress has been made since then and we should not have to wait for even more evidence to end the use of HHPs when it is entirely predictable that they will cause harm if released to the public for use in homes and on farms.
Handling pesticides without protection – credit PAN Ethiopia
What are we doing?
PAN UK, alongside other members of the PAN network, work hard to address this information gap by conducting health surveys and pesticide exposure monitoring. Over the years we have questioned tens of thousands of farmers, farmworkers, and farming families about how pesticides are used and their impacts. These studies help to reveal the real life “conditions of use” in rural communities. They can uncover common routes of exposure and identify the specific pesticides responsible for poisonings – critical information to help policy makers target interventions to address the problem.
Over the years, our studies have repeatedly shown that the assumptions that national regulators make when they authorise pesticides are not valid: personal protective equipment is rarely available and pesticide users receive little or no training on their hazards or use. The result is that acute pesticide poisoning is widespread and common in LMICs: the majority of our studies have shown that 40% or more of farmers experience at least one poisoning event a year. If these findings are representative, this would suggest that millions of farmers and farmworkers are poisoned every year.