The Council of Agriculture has announced that paraquat would be banned as scheduled from the beginning of this month. This highly lethal herbicide, which leads to approximately 200 deaths per year in the nation, is finally being phased out.
A growing number of countries have banned paraquat, including South Korea, China, Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia. Taiwan finally joins them in removing the chemical, which is an important step toward protecting the lives and health of farmers and their families.
The ban would not only prevent painful deaths from paraquat poisoning, but also reduce the potential risk of developing Parkinson’s disease from long-term use of the herbicide.
In June last year, Taiwan passed and implemented the Suicide Prevention Act (自殺防治法), which requires authorities to reduce access to highly lethal means of suicide. The policy to ban paraquat is not only consistent with the council’s long-term goal to reduce the use of pesticides in farming, but also complies with the law.
This suicide prevention strategy is supported by scientific evidence, which shows that banning highly hazardous pesticides is the only effective approach in reducing this kind of suicide, while other strategies, such as restricting sales of the chemical to licensed users, have shown limited success.
The WHO recommends restricting lethal means of suicide, such as firearms or highly hazardous pesticides, as one of the multilevel strategies for countries to prevent suicide. The ban on paraquat is the realization of those recommendations.
Taiwan’s phased ban on paraquat is showing some initial effects in reducing suicide. When the government announced the two-stage ban on paraquat in October 2017, sales of paraquat went up substantially for a brief period, indicating that users were stocking up on the herbicide.
Subsequently, sales fell markedly from July 2018, and deaths from paraquat poisoning declined that year — from 2015 to 2017, the average annual number of deaths from paraquat poisoning was 221, while in 2018 it dropped to 185.
Sales of paraquat further decreased last year, and mortality rates are expected to fall as well. After the ban, people attempting suicide by ingesting other pesticides would have a higher chance of survival compared with using paraquat.
This means that survivors would have a chance to receive the treatment and support they need, and the risk of death from a repeat suicide attempt is relatively low, research shows.
The following counties would benefit the most from the ban: Taitung, Hualien, Yilan, Changhua, Yunlin and Chiayi. Paraquat accounted for more than one-eighth of all suicides in those counties.
One critical step to obtaining the greatest benefit from banning it is to remove paraquat stored in households as soon as possible.
One survey showed that 60 percent of people who attempted suicide by ingesting paraquat already had it in their home and few purchased it solely for suicide. Health and agricultural departments at local governments should work together to educate farmers about the ban and encourage them to turn over their remaining supply of the herbicide to vendors or authorities.
Local governments should also survey farmers and vendors for any remaining paraquat and encourage them to use alternative herbicides or other weed-control measures that would not involve the use of pesticides.
The council should also request manufacturers and vendors to recall and destroy paraquat in line with Article 19 of the Agro-pesticides Management Act (農藥管理法).
The sooner we reduce the stock of paraquat, the more lives we save and the more we avoid losses to families and communities.
Chang Shu-sen is an associate professor at the National Taiwan University College of Public Health. Chen Ying-yeh is director of psychiatry at Taipei City Hospital’s Songde Branch and an adjunct professor at National Yang-Ming University.
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