Thousands of crop-pickers across Pakistan face serious health risks by being exposed to residues of pesticides, research carried out in the rural areas of the country has revealed.
Harmful remains of pesticides have been traced in fruits, vegetables, crops and, indeed, in the entire agricultural Eco-system, making Pakistan one of the few countries in the world where such alarming levels go unnoticed by government authorities. In Pakistan’s case, there is a complete lack of regulation or monitoring on the use of pesticides and their affects on the men and women involved in the filed.
Dr Tahir Anwar, who serves as the Principal Research Officer and in charge at Pakistan Agriculture Research Council’s (PARC) Pesticides Research Institute at the at University of Karachi has been investigating local pesticides and their use. His thesis, titled “Pesticide residues in water, soil, fruits and vegetables in cotton growing areas of Sindh and lower Punjab” was focussed on the soil, water, fruits and vegetable samples obtained from cotton-growing areas of Nawabshah, Bahawalpur and Lodhran districts of southern Punjab.
The author’s survey included people involved in the use of pesticides in the field and covered topics such as pesticide awareness, possible health hazards and handling of the chemicals.
According to the research findings, besides contamination in the crop, the top layers of soil were also found contaminated. Harmful remains of pesticides were noticed in 87.5 per cent of the fruits, while 28 per cent of the samples exceeded the Maximum Acceptable Concentrate (MAC) for any single pesticide. In addition, all (100 per cent )vegetables were found contaminated and 37 per cent samples were above the MAC. The study also found majority of the water samples contaminated with pesticide residues.
Malpractices and lack of care for the crop-pickers and their families were among the major startling revelations of Dr Anwar’s study, which highlighted the indiscriminate use of pesticides in Pakistan and their potential threats to livestock and wildlife.
Currently, three major groups of pesticides, including Organophosphate, Pyrethroid and Organochlorine are being widely used in Pakistan. Additionally, 108 types of insecticides, 30 kinds of fungicides, 39 types weedicides and six different types of rodenticides are being used in the agricultural sector of the country.
Despite the widespread use of pesticides, almost 80 per cent of the spray never reaches the plant and is left in the soil and eco-systems, where it remains there for a very long time and then the harmful chemicals move further through wind and water.
Major health hazards
“The use of cough-related medicines was seen to have increased during pesticide spray season in all cotton-growing areas,” Dr Anwar told Dawn.com.
Cotton, being a major cash crop of Pakistan, consumes more than 70 per cent pesticides being used in the country and at least a dozen spray sessions are recorded during a single harvesting season (which starts in September and runs up to November) of cotton.
“When I asked around 100 cotton sprayers about their families, majority of them (at least 60 per cent) said that they were childless,” Dr Anwar revealed, adding that still birth was also observed among women involved in cotton farming.
According to Dr Anwar, the alarming rate of infertility among cotton-farmers and pesticide-sprayers could be down to the fact that even a single molecule of pesticide could disturb hormone levels in the human body.
He said that tiredness, dizziness and headaches were commonly observed among farmers after spray sessions, but recovery was observed following baths or showers.
Dr Anwar stressed the need to record medical histories of all the farmers, especially those involved in spraying pesticides in cotton-growing areas and called for the introduction of government-backed health awareness programs for cotton-growing farmers in order to highlight the precautions and hazards related to the handling, mixing and spraying of pesticides.
Pesticides have also been harming women, who often bring their babies and toddlers to the fields during spraying sessions. Women were also reported to have fainted during spraying sessions and developed skin diseases on their hands. In some cases, women also picked the woody parts of the cotton plants and used it as cooking fuel.
Due to lack of awareness, farmers have also been also using cotton pesticides on other plants, including fruits and vegetables. For instance, okra (also known as lady’s fingers) is biologically close to cotton and is thus affected by similar insects in the field, prompting farmers to use cotton pesticides on the vegetable.
Alarmingly, there is a complete lack of pesticide-residue regulation and monitoring in Pakistan. This leads to several malpractices, including pesticide adulteration as suppliers are known to mix cheap but more dangerous chemicals in sealed pesticide containers via syringes and other methods. Apart from this, banned substance DDT is being smuggled from neighbouring countries, including India, and being used in Pakistan, where it is commonly mixed with other pesticides.
The researcher urged the authorities to monitor pesticide-spraying practices and check for residues on crops, fruits and vegetables by implementing a centralised laboratory system to save the lives of the farming families, who form a vital part of the country and its economy.