Latin America toxic chemical waste three times higher than thought

Mountains of toxic chemical waste from unused and obsolete pesticides in Latin America are at least three times larger than previously thought, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation has warned.

The dumps threaten human health and water supplies and the UN is calling for extra funding to tackle the problem.

Obsolete pesticides are left over from pest control campaigns in cotton and other cash-crop production. Stockpiles have accumulated because a number of products have been banned for health or environmental reasons, but were never removed and disposed of.

Previous estimates, based on information provided by countries, suggested a total of about 10,000 tonnes of chemicals needing disposal. However, Mark Davis, coordinator of the FAO’s obsolete pesticides programme, says that new data has puts the figure at a much higher level.

“Since that time a more frightening picture has begun to emerge indicating that stocks are far higher and are currently estimated to be between 30,000 and 50,000 tonnes,” he said.

Cleaning up the chemical dumps poses an expensive challenge for such poor countries and the FAO has no further funds to support such work in the region. The UN is calling for extra donor funding to tackle the problem and estimates that approximately US$100 million is needed to effectively dispose of the dumps.

The chemicals are already threatening human health and water supplies.

In Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay, urgent efforts are underway to remove 125 tonnes of pesticides and heavily contaminated material that were damaged by fire. Efforts to extinguish the fire led to heavy contamination of the nearby Paraguay River and a nearby village where people are now reported as showing signs of chronic intoxication.

Similarly, in Bolivia, old stocks of arsenic based pesticides and volatile fumigants were found in residential areas and close to important water bodies, including Lake Titicaca. Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in the region but has made efforts to take stock and safely secure these toxins by repackaging the waste.

A regional training programme has been organised for nine South American countries by the FAO so that government regulators, emergency service staff and industry representatives learn how to safely design and supervise a cleanup operation.

However, without further funding, such training programmes are likely to end very soon, the FAO has warned.

By David Hopkins

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