An Old Pesticide Causing New Problems
NOTE: This is a guest post from Tori Timms, a campaigner for the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF).
Around fifty years ago, German company Hoechst Schering AgrEvo patented what was then perceived to be a new ‘wonder’ chemical pesticide – endosulfan. This, they believed, could be used on almost all crops and could selectively pick its way through the application zone, eliminating pests but leaving useful insects unscathed.
Sadly this has not been the case. Fast forward a few decades, and endosulfan has come out of patent, and generic versions are being produced and sold around the world, mainly in developing countries. All but one of the top ten cotton producing countries used it and other regular uses include on soy, rice, wheat, vegetables, fruits, nuts, coffee and tobacco crops.
There has been growing concern internationally about the unintentional consequences of endosulfan. This has triggered a wave of national bans on the pesticide, and in 2011 the future manufacture and use of the pesticide is under debate.
Since last year, endosulfan, like DDT, has been officially classed as a Persistent Organic Pollutant (POP). POPs take a very long time to break down naturally once they have been released into the environment, and they can be transported over long distances. Traces of endosulfan have been found in the blood of polar bears in Svalbard, the blubber of minke whales and even in grasses on Mt. Everest.
All pesticides are hazardous by design, manufactured with the sole aim of killing, repelling or inhibiting the growth of organisms, and those which are POPs are particularly noted for their high toxicity. Endosulfan is no exception.
Endosulfan is readily absorbed through human skin, the stomach and lungs and acute exposure can be fatal. The National Poison Control Information Center of the Philippines recorded 278 poisonings including 85 deaths due to endosulfan in 1990 and more recently, in 2008, five school-age boys died in Jharkhand, India, after drinking contaminated milk.
The stories of fatal accidental exposure are almost always in developing countries, and always devastating for the families and community of those lost. The Pesticide Action Network reported one such story where a father in Benin had come back from working in the fields and left his pesticide-soaked work clothes on the roof of his house to keep them safely out of reach from his young children. Overnight it rained, and water from the roof ran over his clothes and down into the family’s water containers. The next morning the children used the water for drinking and washing. Within minutes they suffered headaches, nausea and convulsions. Within 20 hours, all four children were dead.
Chronic endosulfan exposure has been linked to severe physical deformities, delayed reproductive development, suppressed immunity, renal failure, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, increased risk of Parkinson’s Disease and infertility.
Unborn children and infants are particularly vulnerable because endosulfan accumulates in placental tissue, umbilical cord blood and breast milk.
This is a worldwide concern: despite domestic bans on its use, it has been found in samples from women living in countries including Denmark, Finland, Spain, and the US.
Endosulfan is also devastating to livestock and wildlife.
Run-off from fields has emptied life from large stretches of rivers, and spraying has resulted in severe declines in beneficial insects. Kerala Agricultural University recently published their findings that within a day of endosulfan being applied to cardamom plants, honey bees in Idukki had shown symptoms of poisoning and colony populations had declined.
There are proven, effective, economically-viable and socially sustainable alternatives for all uses of endosulfan. Recognising this and the huge body of scientific evidence against the continued use of endosulfan, more than 70 countries have now announced national bans. These include Brazil, Colombia, Cote d’Ivoire, Indonesia, Australia and all EU countries.
When announcing the US phase out, the US EPA highlighted that “endosulfan poses unacceptable risks to agricultural workers and wildlife” and that it simply cannot be applied safely for the majority of its uses.
However, because of its persistence, no country can protect its people from endosulfan until a global ban is in place. This could be achieved by listing endosulfan under Annex A of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), with no exemptions made for any of its uses.
Last year, the Stockholm Convention Scientific Committee (POPRC) made the recommendation that endosulfan be globally restricted. National parties to the convention will make the final decision on this in Geneva next month.
We are very close to a global ban on endosulfan, but first it is necessary to persuade the handful of countries in opposition it is the right action to take. Opposition is being led by the Indian delegation, the same government that is the owner and beneficiary of one of the world’s top endosulfan manufacturers.
The Environmental Justice Foundation is a charity working to empower people who suffer most from environmental abuses to find peaceful ways of preventing them. EJF provides film and advocacy training to individuals and grassroots organisations, enabling them to document, expose and create long term solutions to environmental abuses.
Photo copyright Shree Padre