The pesticide threat to public health
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Anew report issued by the UN takes a controversial stance on synthetic pesticides. The conventional wisdom is that they are essential to feed the world’s growing population. But the report’s authors call our reliance on synthetic pesticides “a short-term solution that undermines the right to adequate food and health for present and future generations”. They are right.
As a scientist from Nigeria whose work focuses on controlling post-harvest losses, I have seen first-hand what happens when the use of synthetic pesticides is not properly regulated. Yet much of the world is still following the conventional wisdom, with dire consequences for public health.
The US seems poised to increase its already extensive pesticide use further. In February, former Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt was confirmed as director of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Pruitt, who sued the EPA many times in his previous job, seems intent on slashing its budget and dismantling many of its regulations, including those for pesticides, which are essential to ensuring food safety.
Anybody who consumes food grown or produced in the US should now be worried. Indeed, dismantling the EPA amounts to arming a public-health time bomb—one that has detonated repeatedly in developing countries.
In 1984, a pesticide-manufacturing plant in Bhopal, India, released 27 tonnes of methyl isocyanate, a gas used to produce some pesticides. The leak killed an estimated 15,000-20,000 people, and left several thousand more with permanent disabilities. The plant was understaffed, and had substandard operating and safety procedures. None of the six safety systems that could have prevented the accident was operational.
The Bhopal tragedy remains the world’s worst industrial disaster. But it is just a small part of an enormous tableau of needless suffering. The World Health Organization estimates that there are three million cases of pesticide poisoning worldwide each year, leading to up to 250,000 deaths.
In 1996, for example, insecticide-treated brown beans, purportedly stored for planting, found their way into the market in Nigeria, a “leak” connected with the deaths of a number of people in the south-west region of the country. In 2013, in India, an organophosphate pesticide killed 23 children, who ate a lunch of tainted rice, potatoes and soy.
These sorts of tragedies happen even when guidelines for pesticide registration and use are in place. In Nigeria, the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control banned 30 agrochemicals (pesticides and fertilizers) in 2008, after a number of deaths and poisonings. But it was inadequate to prevent the deaths from pesticide poisoning of 18 people in Nigeria’s Ondo state in 2015.
And the danger of inadequate regulation is not limited to acute disasters. The accumulation of toxic substances from chemicals applied both in the field and in storage also contributes to the continuous decline in the quality of our natural environment—namely, our soil, water and air.
More than 250 studies have linked agrochemicals to several types of cancers, including cancers of the brain, breast, colon, liver, lungs, prostate and thyroid. Children, in particular, seem to be susceptible to the toxic effects of pesticides: research shows that the increased incidence of childhood leukaemia and brain cancer could be the result of early exposure. And exposure to such chemicals has been linked to a variety of birth defects.
All of this paints a grim picture of what could happen in the US if the EPA’s opponents—who now include the agency’s director—get their way. In 2006 and 2007, the US used more than five billion pounds of pesticides annually—and that was with EPA regulations in place.
Of course, the US is not the only country at risk from excessive use of organophosphates. While pesticide use in developing countries is much lower than in the US, data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) show a steady increase in countries in Africa and Asia. Farmers in these regions are looking for easy ways to reduce crop losses and increase their income. And there are few regulations in place to stop them.
In fact, FAO reports that most pesticide-poisoning cases occur in developing countries, precisely because health standards there tend to be inadequate or non-existent. The UN report found that only 35% of developing countries had regulatory guidance on pesticide use, and all of them struggle with enforcement.
Developing countries must implement more effective mechanisms for monitoring the agrochemicals that are in circulation. They must also work to reduce the use of toxic chemicals to control pests and increase yields, especially by promoting organic alternatives that do not pose widespread health and environmental risks.
For example, organic manure can help boost crop yields, as can bio-pesticides, derived from plants. Such natural methods, which are both effective and non-toxic, should be adopted not just in developing countries, but around the world.
Synthetic pesticides may have a place in helping to feed an increasingly hungry world, especially in developing countries. But we must imagine how many unnecessary poisonings and deaths will occur unless they are deployed with the utmost care and restraint. If Americans can’t imagine that, Pruitt’s dream, if not reconsidered, will become their nightmare.
Mojisola Ojebode is a Nigerian biochemist and the founder of Moepelorse Bio Resources.