Sat, Apr 01, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Unbridled pesticide use will spark a global health crisis

As a growing number of studies points to the dangers of unrestrained agrochemical use, the US cannot permit its grip to slacken

By Mojisola Ojebode

Illustration: Tania Chou

A new 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, which is expected to hit 9 billion by 2050.

However, 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 firsthand 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. Last month, former Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt was confirmed as director of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Pruitt, who sued the agency 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 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 24.5 tonnes of methyl isocyanate, a gas used to produce certain pesticides. The leak killed an estimated 15,000 to 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 WHO estimates that there are 3 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 onto the market in Nigeria, a “leak” connected with the deaths of a number of people in the southwest 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, for example, the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control banned 30 agrochemicals, or pesticides and fertilizers, in 2008, after a number of deaths and poisonings. However, this 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 leukemia and brain cancer could be the result of early exposure. And exposure to such chemicals has been linked to a variety of birth defects.

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