Workers collecting grape leaves near Rosario, Chile.
Crédito: Toby Adamson/Oxfam.
Poisoning Victims Demand Pesticide Restrictions
Por Daniela Estrada
A group of 73 Chilean workers who were poisoned demand regulation of agro-chemicals that have chronic effects on human health. The authorities are studying the case.
SANTIAGO, (Tierramérica).- Sixty women and 13 men working as seasonal farm laborers were intoxicated by pesticides this month as they picked apples in an orchard in southern Chile -- calling into question the effectiveness of agro-chemical regulation in this country.
"The women are scared about the long-term effects they could suffer as a result of the poisoning," Alicia Muñoz, head of ANAMURI, an association of rural and indigenous women that is denouncing the deficiencies in the registry, labelling and use of pesticides in Chile, told Tierramérica.
As of September, the Health Ministry had been notified of 471 acute poisonings from pesticides so far this year, a rate of 2.9 per 100,000 inhabitants. Fifty-seven percent of the cases were work-related and, of those, 81 percent were farm laborers, with more than half being seasonal workers -- October to April.
María Elena Rosas, coordinator of RAP-AL, the Latin American Action Network for Pesticides and Alternatives, warns, "For each case reported there are another four that go unreported, and in some regions in the north and the souther there are 10 more, which means there are around 2,500 to 3,000 people poisoned each year."
On Nov. 14, the 73 farm workers suffered nausea, early stages of asphyxia, vomiting and skin rashes after they stepped onto the land owned by the Agrícola y Comercial Santa Elena company near Angol, 600 km south of Santiago. The farm had recently been sprayed with the insecticide Lorsban 75WG and treated with the fertilizer Wuxal Calcio.
According to RAP-AL, the insecticide is an organophosphate, whose active agent is chlorpyrifo, which when absorbed by the human body through the skin or mouth causes symptoms ranging from nausea and muscular contractions to fainting, convulsions and death.
In 2000, the Agriculture Ministry's farm and livestock service, known by its Spanish acronym SAG and entrusted with regulating agro-chemicals, issued a resolution that classified agricultural pesticides and fertilizers according to their toxic effects. That same year, it began requirements for labelling of these products.
But the standards only involve the chemicals' acute effects on humans, not their chronic impacts, such as higher rates of cancer, congenital malformation, leukemia and harm to the immune system.
SAG classified Lorsban 75WG as posing "little danger", considering its potential acute effects. But RAP-AL, ANAMURI, the Alternative Agriculture Research Corporation and the Latin American Observatory of Environmental Conflicts say that exposure to the chemical causes serious health problems in the long term.
Roberto Tapia, from SAG's pesticide and fertilizer division, told Tierramérica that the agency does indeed take into account the chronic effects of the substances when ruling on authorization of imports and sales of an agro-chemical, although it does not establish specific labelling requirements.
But RAP-AL's Rosas believes the farm workers have the right to know about both the immediate and the long-term effects of the chemicals they are exposed to, and that these risks should be clearly stated on labels.
The southern Chile regional secretary of the Health Ministry, Cesar Torres, told Tierramérica that his agency would determine who was responsible in the case of the 73 poisoned workers. Fines could reach 60,000 dollars and the farm could be closed down.
ANAMURI leader Muñoz said that the companies generally appeal this type of government or judicial resolution, and draw out the lawsuits for a long time, leaving the temporary and seasonal farmworkers without timely recourse, and without protection.
According to figures from the government's Office of Agrarian Studies and Policies, in 1997 Chile imported 16,068 tons of pesticides, and in 2003 the imports rose to 22,218 tons.
Chile is one of Latin America's leaders in fruit and vegetable exports, with harvests generating a large portion of seasonal jobs that are filled mostly by women.
Around 800,000 Chileans work in agriculture, and for half it is just seasonal. Of these temporary workers, 250,000 are women, but there are also many children and adolescents.
The various rights groups are calling on Chilean authorities to eliminate or restrict the use of pesticides that cause chronic harm to human health, to rigorously monitor their use, and to apply heavy sanctions and fines to those who violate the rules.
They also are asking the government to ratify Convention 184 of the International Labor Organization on safety and health in agriculture.
* Marcela Valente is an IPS correspondent.