By M. Saleem and Dr M. Arshad
ACCORDING TO the World Health Organization (WHO), about 25 million agricultural workers in developing countries suffer from pesticide poisoning each year that include a significant number of women.
Most of the applied pesticides in these countries have been classified by the WHO as class one pesticides like Monocrotophos, Methamidophos, Endosulfan and Carbufurun, which play havoc with biodiversity, environmental quality and public health standards.
The present socio-economic environment is becoming more hazardous because of an increasing involvement of women in this sector. In the workplace like agricultural fields, about 400,000 worked-related deaths are annually documented in developing countries.
The magnitude of the pesticides toxicity varies from country to country. In Pakistan, about 30 per cent women are full-time farm workers while about 70 per cent are indirectly or directly engaged in farming. Pesticide poisoning is correlated with cotton crop which consumes 85 percent of applied pesticides.
Women become victim of pesticides while performing different agronomic practices in cotton fields. Different research reports expose the plight of these poor female workers. Out of the total 90 female cotton pickers only one could be termed out of danger.
About 75 per cent of them exhibit blood acetylcholine esterase (AChE) inhibition of 15-50 per cent, while 30 per cent suffer from an extreme blood AChE inhibition of 60-70 per cent.
The problem is highlighted in a report released by the Nishter Hospital of the city Multan, which is a major cotton producing district. In one cotton season, out of 578 poisoned patients, 370 were pesticides victims (73 per cent males and 27 per cent females).
Suicidal, occupational and accidental incidences were 53, 23 and 24 per cent, respectively. A total of 54 deaths (34 males and 20 females) with cumulative death rate of about 15 per cent were documented. About 81 per cent of the victims were in the age range of 14-30 years.
Similar incidents of pesticides poisoning in other developing countries like India, China, Indonesia, Philippine, Thailand, Malaysia etc are also highlighted periodically in their media bulletins.
For instance, in Malaysia, there are about 40,000 women pesticide sprayers, which serve in palm oil and rubber plantations throughout Malaysia. Upon their medical investigations, “all investigated case reported either vaginal pains, burning sensation when passing urine, beast cancer, nausea, vomiting, difficulty breathing, skin problems, giddiness, tremors, abdominal pains, fatigue, blurred vision or discoloration of the nails.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) about 37,000 cases of cancer occur annually due to pesticides exposures.
Along with these, pesticides manufacturing and formulation plants have also affected health standards of local female workers. Owing to unavailability of alternative sources of livelihood and extreme poverty, they are forced to work in these plants.
Unfortunately, no precautionary protection measures are taken against such open exposures. They work day and night without wearing proper protective gloves and dresses. On our visit to different pesticides formulation plants in Multan, we experienced very poisonous odour generating from uncovered containers of pesticides. The workers were engaged in filling and packaging pesticides bottles manually. There were more children/young men of the ages 10-24 as compared to women.
People lack the unawareness and little know-how about handling these lethal chemicals, particularly, when the literacy level among rural females is hardly about 20-30 per cent in many developing countries.
After pesticides applications to different crops, the people use the empty bottles for drinking purposes, rather than eliminating/dumping them to avoid residual toxicities of pesticides. Low literacy rate lead to self/suicidal poisonings. Unfortunately, rate of such kind of poisoning is high in some areas.
With keeping in mind the potential role of women in the third world agriculture, following strategies may help in protecting women.
• Compatible integrated pest management strategies (IPM) should be employed for pest controls to minimize the indiscriminate use of pesticides in agriculture.
• Empowerment of rural women should be done by providing education facilities in far off rural areas.
• Awareness among the illiterate females and other necessary technical know-how about handling of pesticides should be imparted on priority bases.
• Recent biotech approaches like introduction of pest-resistant cultivars should be encouraged to minimize pesticides use in agriculture.
• Awareness should be generated among public and farming communities about adverse impacts of pesticides pollution via effective campaigns.
• Pesticides exposure to women can be minimized by providing them alternative sources of earning.
• Institutions should be established to impart training to women folk regarding different skills of livelihood in rural areas.
• There should be a sound co-ordination; understanding and mutual knowledge sharing among different organizations and institution for highlighting the basic rights of women and their protection as well.
• Provision of up-to-date health facilities in rural areas should be done to cope with periodically emerging cases of pesticides poisoning.
• Involvement of different organizations in securing women rights should be encouraged.