Paraquat, Unacceptable Health Risks for Users

Neumeister L & Isenring R (March 2011). 3rd Edition. Berne Declaration, Pesticide Action Network UK, PAN Asia and the Pacific
12 March 2011

In 2006, the last edition of this report was published. In these last 5 years a lot has happened. The claim of Sweden that ‘(...) paraquat is the substance most dangerous to health — in terms of acute toxicity — ever included in Annex I to Directive 91/414 (...)’ eventually lead to an EU–wide ban of paraquat including the requirement for an export notification similar to the international PIC procedure.

On an international level, several UN Organisations admitted that all previous attempts to manage chemicals, including pesticides safely have failed. Literally, UNEP‘s SAICM1 document states that: ‘existing international policy framework (...) is not completely adequate (....). Coherence and synergies between existing institutions and processes are not completely developed (...). There is often limited or no information on many chemicals currently in use (...). Many countries lack the capacity to manage chemicals soundly at the national, subregional, regional and global levels (...)’ (UNEP 2006 pg. 12.)

In conclusion, UNEP proposes: ‘Base national decisions on highly toxic pesticides on an evaluation of their intrinsic hazards and anticipated local exposure to them’ (UNEP 2006 pg. 44). This presents a paradigm shift. ‘Traditional’ (industry–friendly) risk management assumed that all pesticides could be used safely, as long as users oblige to the instructions. With time, the international policy arena recognized that ‘Safe/Proper Use’ of pesticides under the prevailing socio–economic and political conditions in developing countries and countries in transition is an illusion. And they are right: there are millions of very poor farmers and plantation workers–which resources must be made available to provide the necessary education, improve working condtions, and strenghthen controls in agriculture?

While supporting the interests of the pesticide industry and plantation companies–and proposing training plus voluntary measures–tens of thousand people have suffered from highly toxic pesticides such as paraquat. A shift towards more restrictive measures is the right thing to do.

There is some more good news. After thousands of suicides which were committed with paraquat in Sri Lanka, the government there eventually banned all uses of paraquat. Burkina Faso has proposed to add ‘Gramoxone Super’ to Annex III of the Rotterdam Convention, because of numerous occupational poisonings caused by this highly toxic paraquat formulation. Dole’s and Chiquita’s production is paraquat–free and many certification organisations and large food processors and/or retailers have eliminated paraquat from their supply chain and production systems.

While some progress can be seen, this revised report reveals that adverse effects of paraquat continue to exist. In South Korea, 1,200 to 1,400 people die annually from ingesting paraquat and accidental ingestion is still common accross the world. This report shows that the herbicide paraquat causes daily suffering to a very large number of farmers, workers and their families. Problems resulting from paraquat exposure are found around the world: from the United States to Japan and from Costa Rica to Malaysia. The injuries suffered are debilitating and sometimes fatal. Associated chronic health problems are now being identified.

This report also shows that many basic conditions have not changed: In developing countries in particular, paraquat is widely used under high–risk conditions. Problems of poverty are exacerbated by the exposure to hazardous chemicalss, as users have no means to protect themselves. Personal protective equipment is largely not available; it is costly and impossible to wear in hot working conditions. While education, training and information about alternatives and pesticide risk are urgently needed to avoid pesticide use and poisonings, the basic problem is the use of high-risk chemicals like paraquat under conditions of poverty.

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