UN warns of serious pesticide poisoning while banana workers sue

Three UN agencies have warned of the dangers of pesticide poisoning, this week. The agencies have issued a report saying it is a problem that disproportionately affects infants and children and have urged steps to minimise youngsters' exposure to such deadly chemicals.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and World Health Organisation (WHO) published the report - Childhood Pesticide Poisoning: Information for Advocacy and Action - which claims that up to 5 million cases of pesticide poisoning occur each year, resulting in thousands of fatalities.

Children face higher risks from pesticides than adults because they are exposed more to such chemicals over the course of their lifetime and because they are more susceptible. Most poisoning takes place in rural areas of developing countries where safeguards are lacking or inadequate, the report says.

Developing nations use just 25% of the world's production of pesticides, yet they experience 99% of the deaths due to pesticide poisoning.

Diet and poverty are the two main sources of contamination for children. Food and water containing pesticide residues may be a source of chronic, low-level pesticide exposure; growing food on or near contaminated soil can put children at risk; and even pesticides stored incorrectly in the field or the household can contaminate food or water.

Children often help out on family farms in the developing world and, along with many other pesticide users in the developing world, often lack access to protective equipment or receive no training.

These issues were highlighted this week when thousands of banana pickers in Costa Rica filed a lawsuit against two chemical companies and three fresh produce companies, claiming that exposure to a pesticide they were told to use had caused a range of reproductive disorders.

Nemagon and Fumazone - brand names of the soil fumigant concerned - are suspected of causing sterility, testicular atrophy, miscarriages, birth defects, liver damage and cancer through inhalation and absorption by the skin, the lawsuit alleges.

The US EPA banned the chemicals and Shell and Dow Chemicals, both named in the lawsuit, stopped making them in the late 1970s. However, it is alleged the companies continued selling them to Costa Rica after the ban was imposed, "in conscious disregard for the health and safety of workers there."

Dole, Del Monte and Chiquita are also named in the case.

To minimise risk, the UN agencies urge reducing and eliminating possible sources of pesticide exposure at home and at work. Agricultural pesticides could be cut through greater use of integrated pest management (IPM) the agencies say.

They also advise greater training for all workers on how to use pesticides safely, and particularly for health workers, to recognise and manage pesticide poisoning.

By David Hopkins



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