Half a million tonnes of banned or expired pesticides threaten developing nations and countries in transition

The United Nations has issued a warning that five times as many banned or expired pesticides as previously thought threaten the environment and the health of millions of people in almost all developing countries and in many countries in transition.

The alarm call has been sounded by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in a new report detailing the problem of pesticide waste globally totalling more than 500,000 tonnes. While more than 100,000 tonnes of old or unused pesticides litter Africa and the Near East, Asia has almost 200,000 tonnes and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union another 200,000 tonnes. FAO is still preparing inventories for Latin America, but says that even without this figure the global total is already five times higher than previous estimates of around 100 000 tonnes.

From provisional figures for Africa and the Near East released by the FAO, Botswana is the country with the biggest problem with more than 18,000 tonnes of pesticide waste, followed by Mali with almost 14,000 and then Ethiopia, whose government has requested urgent help with its problem and where FAO is currently assisting in the biggest clean-up of pesticides in Africa (see related story). The waste sites contain some of the most dangerous insecticides in existence, including aldrin, chlordane, DDT, dieldrin, endrin and heptachlor, which have been banned in most countries, along with organophosphates. Additionally, as pesticides deteriorate, they form by-products, which may be more toxic than the original substance and waste sites also contain contaminated sprayers, empty containers and huge quantities of heavily polluted soil.

The precise location of the chemicals is also of grave concern to the FAO as many stocks are situated near farmers’ fields and wells in poor rural areas, as well as near houses, food stores and markets in urban areas. The dumps are often abandoned, unmanaged and in very poor condition and in many cases, pesticides are left in the open or stored in unsubstantial mud and straw structures with earth floors, and numerous containers are corroding. Villagers also complain of intense headaches and nausia in many affected communities.

The pesticide waste has accumulated over more than 30 years, and products are being added continuously, according to the report. Obsolete pesticides have built up because they were not used or were not removed after being banned for health or environmental reasons. In many African countries, for example, dieldrin was used to control locust outbreaks until the late 1980s. After that time, it was decided not to use dieldrin any further, but existing stocks were not removed or used up. In addition, some formulations are not stable under tropical conditions, causing them to degrade rapidly and in others, pesticides were not labelled or were labelled in a language the user could not understand, and, therefore, they were never used.

Pesticides have been provided in the past by international aid agencies with good intentions, but insufficient coordination has been a major factor causing accumulation of excessive supplies, FAO says. In addition, governments of some developing countries, in particular those with state-run economies, have bought pesticides and then failed to use them. The major pesticide producers are based in Europe, the United States, Japan, China and India. “Large sums of money are involved in pesticide supply,” according to the FAO report. “As a result, a variety of hidden interests may play a role in decisions concerning pesticide procurement or donation. Often these interests are not strictly related to the best technical solution to pest problems.” Pesticides sales earn companies more than US$30 billion a year, more than 80% of it shared by eight companies: Aventis, BASF, Bayer, Dow AgroSciences, Dupont, Monsanto, Sumitomo and Syngenta, none of which to date has been involved in a clean-up of their products.

Disposal and destruction are expensive at around US$3 per kilogram or litre, almost all of which has come from governments and aid agencies. So far, less than 3,000 tonnes have been removed in Africa and the Near East. The clean up has mainly been funded by Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, the United States and FAO. Support from industry is crucial for the disposal of pesticides because aid agencies of donor countries cannot cover all the costs, according to FAO which has called upon chemical companies represented by the Global Crop Protection Federation to aid the disposal effort.

Incineration is currently the only safe and environmentally acceptable method of disposal, and the industry has made a commitment to pay for the incineration of obsolete pesticides. But so far, companies have contributed little, FAO says. The organisation also calls upon its member nations to employ environmentally friendly Integrated Pest Management methods and to drastically reduce the use of pesticides where possible.

“The lethal legacy of obsolete pesticides is alarming, and urgent action is needed to clean up waste dumps,” says Alemayehu Wodageneh, FAO expert on obsolete pesticides. “These ‘forgotten’ stocks are not only a hazard to people’s health, they also contaminate water and soil. Leaking pesticides can poison a very large area, making it unfit for crop production.”

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