Thirty percent of third world pesticides pose serious health and environmental threat

Two United Nations agencies have warned that around 30% of pesticides marketed in developing countries “are posing a serious threat to human health and the environment”, and called for legally-enforced specifications on production and use internationally.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced on 5 February that the pesticides, with an estimated market value of US$900 million annually, do not meet internationally accepted quality standards. “These poor-quality pesticides frequently contain hazardous substances and impurities that have already been banned or severely restricted elsewhere,” said Gero Vaagt, Senior Officer at the FAO’s Pesticide Management Group. Such pesticides, he added, often contribute to the accumulation of obsolete pesticide stocks in developing countries.

The market value for pesticides in developing countries is around US$3 billion, out of a global market worth US$32 billion in 2000, the agencies say. In developing countries, pesticides are mainly used for agriculture, but also for public health, such as insecticides like the notoriously harmful DDT used for controlling insects spreading malaria (see related story). Possible causes of low quality of pesticides can include both poor production and formulation and the inadequate selection of chemicals. “In many pesticide products, for example, the active ingredient concentrations are outside internationally accepted tolerance limits,” said Dr David Heymann, Executive Director of WHO’s Communicable Disease activities. “In addition, poor-quality pesticides may be contaminated with toxic substances or impurities.”

When the quality of labelling and packaging is also taken into account, the proportion of poor-quality pesticide products in developing countries is even higher. The agencies say that the labelling is often vaguely worded failing to provide data on the active ingredient, application, date of manufacture and safe handling of the chemical. For the consumer, however, the label is often the only source of product information that can guarantee a safe and effective use of the chemical. Falsely declared products continue to find their way to markets for years without quality control, WHO said.

FAO and WHO said that that the problem of poor-quality pesticides is particularly widespread in sub-Saharan Africa, where quality control is generally weak. Both agencies urged governments and international organisations to adopt the worldwide accepted FAO/WHO pesticide specifications to ensure the production and trade of good quality products and to make these voluntary standards legally binding.

The standards are especially important for developing countries that lack the infrastructure for proper evaluation of pesticide products. The agencies urge pesticide industries, including producers of generic pesticides, to submit their products for quality assessment to FAO/WHO. This would enhance the development of high quality standards for pesticides, leading to improved human and environmental safety as well as to more sustainable agriculture production, they say.

In December last year, 122 nations agreed to ban twelve of the most toxic pesticides (see related story).

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