|CERES No. 116 (FAO Ceres, 1987, 50 p.)|
A matter of grave concern in Sri Lanka is the number of people who are poisoned each year by pesticides. In fact, fatalities from pesticide poisoning are believed to be among the highest in the world. In 1983, there were 2 010 deaths among 16 649 recorded cases of pesticide poisonings. In 1984 there were 16 085 cases and 2 250 persons died, a very high figure for a population of 16 million. Pesticide poisonings, in tact, rank third among causes of death in Sri Lanka, after heart ailments and accidents.
These figures were compiled from hospital records. But, says Dr Ravindra Fernando, director-designate of the proposed National Poisons Information Centre, there may be a further 1000 to 2000 pesticide fatalities each year not recorded by hospitals. In addition, he says, many more people who are poisoned by pesticides do not even seek hospital treatment. One of the responsibilities of the Poisons Centre, when it has been established, will be to collect more precise data on the number of pesticide poisoning cases on the island.
What is already known, however, is that the vast majority of deaths caused by pesticide poisoning are not due to agricultural activities or other occupational hazards. Dr Fernando reports that 74 per cent of all pesticide fatalities are suicides, only 18 per cent are in the agricultural field, and 8 per cent are due to accidental poisoning. The suicides are mainly young people, 77 per cent of them under 30. They are the lovelorn, the frustrated, the depressed and neurotic' the failures and the dropouts, the disappointed and angry young people.
For the most trivial reasons, these young people impulsively reach out for the container of pesticide that is found in most village homes. Newspapers record such incidents as a matter of course, but they happen so frequently that it is no longer news. One of the main reasons for the high rate of poisoning is the easy availability of insecticides. Until recently, almost anyone could buy any pesticide over the counter.
The Control of Pesticides Act of 1980 attempted to bring availability, import, local formulation, transport, distribution, storage, and use of pesticides under strict supervision. In reality, however, there has been little control; some of the most hazardous of toxic chemicals were imported or formulated in the country and sold through aggressive advertising campaigns. Some unscrupulous manufacturers have mixed classes of chemicals, like organophosphates, organochlorines, and caromates, with the result that doctors find it nearly impossible to save the lives of the poisoned because the antidotes for one class of chemicals could be fatal for the other.
Dr Nalino de Alwis, the newly appointed Registrar of Pesticides under the Act, says that the country has made a beginning in the control of the use and abuse of pesticides. But her unit, which functions under the Ministry of Agriculture, needs a much wider infrastructure for policing, monitoring, research, analysing quality, testing for residues, registering of dealers, and other tasks. One of the circumstances that have led to the sharp increase in severe poisoning and fatalities, she says, apart from easy availability, is the fact that the Government has banned the agricultural use of relatively less toxic chemicals like malathion and frenothion, setting these aside for vector control, on the premise that widespread use of the same pesticide in both agriculture and vector control over long periods will contribute to the development of pest resistance to pesticides. As a result, the pesticides now reserved for agricultural uses are of the more toxic variety.
The Registrar of Pesticides has now begun to register all dealers, who must record all stocks and sales, and sell only to bona fide farmers. Dealers are being invited by agricultural officials to participate in training courses; if they don't cooperate, their licences may be cancelled and supply firms may be requested to strike their names from the customer lists. The firms are very cooperative, says Dr de Alwis.
An approved list of agro-chemicals has been gazetted. Imports of these compounds can be made only with the written approval of the Registrar of Pesticides. Imports of such very toxic chemicals as parathion, aldrin, heptachlor, BHC, and dieldrin are no longer permitted. Other highly toxic or carcinogenic compounds, such as methonyl, moncrotophos, or paraquat, have been placed on a severely restricted list and are banned for agricultural uses. They are used only by trained personnel in the Department of Agriculture, in the research institutes, forestry, the Ports Authority, and pest control services.
Dr de Alwis maintains that Sri Lankan pesticide legislation is comprehensive, but acknowledges that there is a need for more infrastructure and financial support. However, the biggest problem, in her view, is to educate farmers. Sri Lanka farmers seem to believe that if they soak their crops with insecticides they will get better results. A survey by the Central Agricultural Research Institute revealed that 60 per cent of all farmers used more than the recommended dosages for pesticides. Many also ignore regulations under the Act stipulating the minimum interval allowed between last spraying and harvesting. According to Dr J. Jeyaratnam, who undertook research into pesticide poisonings in the early 1980s for the Department of Community Medicine at the University of Colombo, farmers do not take the simplest precautions. They were found to use leaking knapsacks; sometimes they sprayed bare-bodied and often against the wind. They did not change their clothes or wash themselves properly after spraying.
Realizing that education is a key weapon for control and management of pesticide use in agricultural applications, the Department of Agriculture's Education Division provides training for both staff and farmers. Sri Lanka is also participating with six other South and Southeast Asian countries in FAO's intercountry programme for integrated pest control in rice.