Free Zone for Paraquat
Por José Eduardo Mora
Paraquat is used without restrictions in Central America, where the herbicide is believed to cause some 400,000 poisonings each year. Each country of the region spends an estimated seven million dollars annually on medical treatment for those affected.
SAN JOSE, (Tierramérica).-
Environmental groups are waging war on the herbicide paraquat, considered toxic to the environment and human health, and banned in several countries. But this synthetic chemical continues to be sold and used without regulation in Central America.
An average of 400,000 intoxications resulting from pesticides are reported in the region each year, and paraquat, whose producers say it is harmless if used with the necessary precautions, heads the list of agro-chemicals known as "the dirty dozen".
The herbicide can be obtained even by children, says activist and researcher Hernán Hermosilla, member of the Emaús Forum, an organization working to ban the chemical in Costa Rica and supporting regional initiatives in the same vein.
"Paraquat continues to be used in the Central American countries because it is effective in killing weeds, but especially because of reasons of a commercial nature," Hermosilla said in a conversation with Tierramérica.
There are 39 products with paraquat or its derivatives circulating in the regional market, under names like: Gramoxone, Chapeador, Atila, Graminex, Serquat, Escopeta, Ultragrass, Fuego and Actor.
Farmers use paraquat on a wide range of crops, including cotton, coffee, African palm rice, sugarcane, cacao, and banana, and often fail to take into account its environmental effects, especially on the soil, and its threat to human health.
Paraquat is what is known as a persistent agro-toxin, which after a series of applications tends to accumulate in the soil, remaining there 16 months (according to laboratory studies in anaerobic conditions) and up to 13 years (in field studies), according to the Emaús Forum.
Exposure to this herbicide through ingestion, inhalation or skin contact can, in the long term, lead to kidney, liver and heart problems, as well as scarring of the lungs and a narrowing of the esophagus. There is no antidote to reverse the effects of this chemical on the human body.
Studies involving farm workers in Taiwan and Costa Rica also linked paraquat to skin cancer, says researcher Katharina Wesseling, from the Costa Rican National University's institute on toxic substances, IRET.
Just two weeks ago IRET presented a regional report on the use of paraquat and the lack of adequate mechanisms for protecting those who handle the substance, mostly smaller farmers.
The workers should be wearing a special protective suit and masks, and the spraying devices must be free of all leaks, said Hermosilla.
"It is highly unlikely that small and medium farmers have the appropriate equipment. For them, it would be like having to be a space suit, and even with the necessary precautions it wouldn't be completely safe to apply paraquat," he said.
Data from RAPAC (Action Network on Pesticides and Alternatives for Central America), indicate that, on average, each country in the region sees 200 deaths resulting from agro-chemical poisoning, and spends seven million dollars on treating such intoxications each year.
If one adds the costs to the poisoning victims' families and the workdays lost by those who become ill from the chemical, the annual sum could reach 19 million dollars, according to the calculations of Mauricio Sermeño, of the Salvadoran Ecological Unit.
In El Salvador there are an average 20,000 paraquat poisonings annually, but official figures are much lower, Sermeño told Tierramérica.
The Pan-American Health Organization concluded in a study of pesticide use in Central America that for every recorded case of intoxication there are 80 to 99 that go unreported.
RAPAL, the Latin American pesticide action network, is conducting an intensive campaign to ban paraquat use in the region.
Chile is the only country in Latin America that has set restrictions for the pesticide: it cannot be applied by aerial means.
Transnational fruit companies like Chiquita and Dole, which grow bananas in Central America, stopped using paraquat in October 2001.
Sweden banned the substance in 1983, and was followed by Austria, Denmark, Finland, Hungary and Slovenia. In 2002, Malaysia joined the group of countries that have declared war on this herbicide, says journalist and researcher John Madeley in his report, "Syngenta's Controversial Herbicide", in reference to paraquat's global distributor.
Syngenta took over the company Zeneca, which was the leading producer of the herbicide. Today, the chemical is produced in massive quantities in China, where Syngenta operates an enormous plant, says Madeley.
El Salvador's National Commission on Pesticides is considering the possibility of restricting the use of several agro-chemicals, including paraquat. But if the situation in the region is to change, citizen pressure on politicians is essential, says Sermeño.
* José Eduardo Mora is a Tierramérica contributor