Pesticide safety – lessons from the green revolution

In light of the current world food crisis the BBC has re-examined the experiences of the Green Revolution. This high tech approach to increasing farm output appears on the surface to be a success in the Punjab of India. The BBC’s David Loyn reported on the experiences of one farmer: “Before Mr Singh’s father died young of cancer in 1992, none here suspected that the technology that had brought wealth to these farmlands in the 1970s might have a downside as well.”

Mr. Loyn looked more closely into the issue of the pesticides required by these crops. “The sprays all have instructions demanding that they should only be used with face masks and protective clothing. But the farm workers here do not use protective equipment, and they spray far more than the recommended amount. The cause of cancer is always a contentious issue, but a new study from the Punjabi University at Patiala ruled out other potential factors like age, alcohol intake and smoking, concluding that the way the sprays are used is causing cancer.”

Around a dozen insecticides are approved for use in Indoor Residual Spraying. WHO cautions that, “When implementing IRS, it is critical to ensure that adequate regulatory control is in place to prevent unauthorized and un-recommended use of public health pesticides.” Safety should be a major concern –

Another major consideration when selecting an insecticide is safety. Insecticides recommended by WHO are deemed safe for public health use under the recommended conditions of use. Concerns over the safety of DDT, a persistent organic pollutant, have also been comprehensively addressed in the framework of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). The Convention bans the use of DDT, except for public health purposes. Therefore, DDT can be used for IRS where it is indicated, provided that stringent measures are taken to avoid its misuse and leakage outside public health.

lrg-102-img_1606_ethiopia_lowres-sm.jpgIn a comparison of the cost advantages of various insecticides that can be used for IRS, Walker (2000) emphasizes that safety measures must be included in the cost calculations. Even in the re-treatment of ITNs, WHO recommends that, “The use of rubber gloves is essential; mouth and nose masks should be worn when dipping large numbers of nets, especially with emulsifiable concentrate formulations.” The document also stresses that people who pack, mix and spray insecticides should also wear protective devices/clothing.

We hope that with proper care, supervision and protection of malaria workers, the community members they serve and the environment, we will see the history of today’s malaria control efforts written without the downside as experienced in the Green Revolution.

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