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close this bookCircle of poison - Pesticides and People in a Hungry World (Food First, 1981)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentAcknowledgments
View the documentPreface
View the documentChapter one - The circle of poison
View the documentChapter two - A victim every minute
View the documentChapter three - Dumping: Business as usual
View the documentChapter four - The pesticide boomerang
View the documentChapter five - Pesticides to feed the hungry ?
View the documentChapter six - The global pesticides super-market
View the documentChapter seven - Lubricating the sales machine
View the documentChapter eight - With the advice and consent of government
View the documentChapter nine - Breaking the circle of poison
View the documentBureaucracy glossary
View the documentAppendix A
View the documentAppendix B
View the documentAppendix C
View the documentFor more information
View the documentAbout the institute

Chapter two - A victim every minute

FOR CHEMICAL COMPANY executives, exporting hazardous pesticides is not "dumping." If one country bans your product, move to where sales are still legal. It's just good business. But "good business" practice seldom takes account of the human toll inflicted by the massive use of pesticides.

As we mentioned in Chapter One, every minute of the day, on the average, someone is poisoned by pesticides in the third world. This World Health Organization statistic amounts to 500,000 poisoned people every year. A pesticide-caused death occurs about every hour and 45 minutes, totaling at least 5,000 each year. Yet these estimates tell us nothing about the number of cancers, miscarriages, deformed babies and still-births resulting from the use of pesticides.

The rate of pesticide poisoning in underdeveloped countries is more than 13 times that in the United States, despite vastly greater use here, according to Virgil Freed, a consultant to the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID). But why are there so many more victims in the third world ? The following accounts from around the world tell why.

Culiacán, Mexico

IN CULIACAN in Northern Mexico' where large plantations grow tomatoes for American supermarkets, government doctors report seeing two or three pesticide poisonings every week. Sometimes workers are brought in with convulsions. Since they get no paid sick leave, often they return immediately to the fields, where their condition deteriorates. Every two or three weeks a federal hospital in Culiacán treats a farmworker for aplastic anemia, a blood disease linked to organochlorine pesticides used in the area. About half of these victims die.

But Los Angeles Times reporters Laurie Becklund and Ron Taylor were told by one group of workers that "someone in their camp dies every two or three days." The farmworkers are routinely poisoned by drifting pesticide sprays and leaking pesticide applicators, according to the reporters.

The workers live along the small patches of earth between the crops and the irrigation canals that receive all of the pesticide run-off. "They wash their babies, their dishes and their clothes in the canals and then turn back to the canals to fill discarded insecticide tubs with canal water to drink," reports the Times. While the workers become ill from contaminated water, modern greenhouses with purified water systems have been erected to nurture the tomato seedlings. "The seedlings are more important than the people," one U.S.-born grower explained.

Central America

MORE THAN 14,000 poisonings and 40 deaths from pesticides were tabulated between 1972 and 1975 in the cotton-growing Pacific coastal plains of Central America, according to a 300-page report by the Central American Institute of Investigation and Industrial Technology (ICAITI). The actual total is undoubtedly much higher, but impossible to determine. According to the report, "some of the large cotton producers maintain their own clinics (partly}to hinder public health officials from detecting the seriousness of human insecticide poisonings."' Although the pesticides are applied mainly to cotton grown for export, food crops - mainly corn and beans - are often contaminated simply because they are near the cotton fields. The report says that 75 percent of the sprayed pesticide frequently misses the cotton fields completely. And toxic residues contaminate the soil.

Some farmworkers try to wash the pesticide from their skin, the ICAITI study revealed. But they use the irrigation drainage ditches, laced with the toxic runoff of insecticides, thereby compounding their contamination. Washing could not remove much of the parathion anyway, due to its pernicious tendency to concentrate in the oil on the skin, which transmits it directly into the bloodstream.

Parathion, which causes 80 percent of Central America's poisonings, was originally developed for chemical warfare by Nazi scientists during World War II. Slight chemical alterations converted it into a profitable insecticide after the war. The lethal dose of parathion to human beings is about one-sixtieth that of DDT: that is, it is 60 rimes more toxic. Parathion, explains Dr. H. L. Falk, of the National Institute of Environmental Sciences, "breaks down the substance which your body produces to stop the movement of your finger or your eye, for example. So those movements won't stop. You exhaust the muscles until they stop functioning altogether. You go into convulsions and die."

The legacy of heavy pesticide use in Central America is ominous. Average DDT levels in cow's milk in Guatemala are go times as high as allowed in the United States. People in Nicaragua and Guatemala carry 31 times more DDT in their blood than people in the United States, where the substance has been banned since 1970.

In Guatemala, reports New York Times correspondent Alan Riding, "the worst conditions, though the best pay, are on the cotton plantations. Here, pesticide spraying levels are so high that shipments of meat from cattle ranches in the area are frequently rejected by the United States Department of Agriculture because of their high DDT content. Studies also show that DDT levels in human blood in the cotton districts are eight times higher than in Guatemala City. Yields, though, are among the highest in the world. 'It's very simple,' explained Eduardo Ruiz, a young cotton planter. 'More insecticide means more cotton, fewer insects mean higher profits.'

" But little concern is shown for those living and working in the region," reports Riding. "At the height of spraying {in the Tiquisate area}, 30 or 40 people are treated daily in the nearby government clinic for the toxic effects on the liver and other organs.

"'The farmers often tell the peasants to give another reason for their sickness, but you can smell the pesticide in their clothing,' a nurse said. 'And we know the symptoms - dizziness, vomiting and weakness. Only people who die in the clinic are reported. Otherwise bodies are buried on the farms.


A WORLD AWAY from Central America, pesticides also kill. In Pakistan, at least five persons died and 2,900 others became ill in 1976 from malathion supplied in part by New York - based American Cyanamid for a U.S. government program to eradicate malaria. Monte-Edison, an Italian chemical company, also supplied the malathion.
Government silence

FEW THIRD WORLD countries have either adequate 1 pesticide regulations or the capacity to enforce them. As a result, the multinational pesticide producers have a free hand. Central America, for instance, has been turned into "a sort of experimental grounds for pesticide manufacturing companies," concludes the detailed study cited earlier.

Most third world governments are reluctant to disclose their poisoning statistics, incomplete as they might be. Robert Chambers, who supervised the GAO's investigation of pesticides, cites three reasons the pesticide poisonings are often hushed up.

"One is tourism," he explains. "It doesn't look good to have press reports about contaminated food. Two, no government wants to admit it was poisoning its own people. Would you admit you were allowing dangerous conditions in your country with President Carter's emphasis on human rights ? Three, the countries are worried that if they report poisonings, the FDA will start to check their food exports to the United States and find illegal residues. This could have a severe adverse impact on their export earnings."

Poisons in a Coke bottle

PESTICIDE POISONINGS are much more common in the third world than in the industrial countries not only because of the more brutal working conditions there, but also because of hazards of distributing any poison in societies where most people cannot read and have never had to learn the dangers of manmade chemicals.

"Small shops in Indonesia sell pesticides right alongside the potatoes and rice and other foods," says Lucas Brader of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). "The people just collect it in sugar sacks, milk cartons, Coke bottles - whatever is at hand."

"The laws in less developed countries typically say no repackaging of pesticides," Fred Whittemore of AID explains. "But in the villages it is done routinely. Parathion in Coke bottles stuffed with newspapers with no label is typical." Gramoxone, which contains the deadly weed-killer paraquat, is not only sometimes sold in Coke bottles - it's the same color as Coke.

In Pakistan and Middle-Eastern countries, peasants sometimes wrap pesticides in their turbans, then place the turbans back on their heads to carry the pesticides to the fields.

"In the rainy season in many tropical countries, the plastic liners used in pesticide bags are used as raincoats," says Whittemore. "That is an acute problem causing poisonings."

Gramoxone killed at least 18 people during a four-year period in the Western Highlands of Papua New Guinea, where it is used on coffee plantations and home gardens. "On June 16 a pastor conducted a religious service at Tega village near Mt. Hagen. He accidentally gave gramoxone instead of wine for communion to four people. They all died over the next week," Dr. D. J. Wohlfahrt, assistant secretary for Health in the Mt. Hagen district, wrote in the Papua New Guinea Post Courier of July 25, 1980. "In mid-1979 a young father bought gramoxone and stored it in a bottle. He asked his young son to go and get him a drink. He accidentally brought back the gramoxone and gave it to his father. After a gulp, the father realized it was not water he had drunk. But it was too late - he died," Wohlfahrt says.

"Gramoxone is legally marketed by the manufacturer in plastic bottles with built-in carrying handles that are just perfect for villagers to store their drinking water in after they have used up the weed-killer.

"How many people are we prepared to kill for the convenience of also easily killing weeds?" asks the doctor.

Inadequate labeling or deliberate mislabeling of pesticides also causes poisoning in third world countries. During 1979 the government of Colombia fined Hoechst and Shell for mislabeling pesticides, and fined Dow, Velsicol, Ciba-Geigy, American Cyanamid, and Hoechst for selling substandard products. A recent check in Mexico disclosed that more than 50 percent of the pesticides sold there were labeled incorrectly.

"One aid post orderly came to collect his medicines at Mt. Hagen Hospital and brought an empty gramoxone bottle to put the cough mixture in. The label read 'Poison' and had all the instructions written in English, but how many plantation laborers or village people can read English ?" asks Dr. Wohlfahrt.

"Disposal of pesticides is a major problem, too," says Virgil Freed. "One horrible example is dieldrin in the Cameroon. A couple of years ago too much dieldrin was ordered, and the extra drums were simply placed outside in a jungle area. Now the containers have deteriorated and the dieldrin is spilling all over. I was there and saw the chemical sitting in puddles on the ground. There were people living in huts nearby. There could very well be subtle effects on them."

Indiscriminate, widespread promotion of pesticides is especially disastrous in the third world. In countries where most people cannot read, what use are warning labels on pesticide packages ? In countries which outlaw unions that could protect farmworkers, what chance do peasants have against the crop duster's rain of poison ? In countries with neither enough scientists to investigate pesticide dangers, nor enough trained government officials to enforce regulations, should foreign pesticide makers be given a free hand to push products so dangerous they are banned at home ?