Thirteen year-old Chandra Deepthi, helping his father spray pesticides on the family rice paddy, suddenly found the sprayer blocked. Chandra would be late for evening English tuition classes if the spraying was not finished quickly. So he dismantled the nozzle and blew hard to clear it. The sprayer worked again and Chandra smiled at his beaming father.
Late that evening Chandra found himself gasping for breath and was rushed to hospital. A few minutes later the doctor pronounced Chandra dead. The cause: pesticide poisoning.
From Sri Lankan hospital records it was found that nearly 15,000 people sought treatment for poisoning in 1981. Nearly 80 per cent of all cases were caused by pesticides.
According to medical authorities the death toll due to poisoning by agro-chemicals was higher than the total number of deaths from malaria, polio, whooping cough, diphtheria, tetanus and typhoid.
Agro-chemicals are also the most popular weapon among suicides. In 1981, 1,951 people took their lives by swallowing some form of chemical used in farming. The lovelorn seem to reach out for it impulsively when they cannot cope with their emotional tangles.
And Sri Lankan doctors in most cases can only watch helplessly. There are hundreds of agro-chemicals sold in the country government estimates put the total near 290 and the exact chemical makeup of most of them is a mystery. However, for commonly known pesticides like DDT, Malathion, Aldrin, Baygon. BHC, Follidol or Folithion, antidotes are available in almost all Sri Lankan hospitals.
The situation is now so out of hand that Dr. N. D.W. Lionel of the University of Colombo has drawn up a complete list of chemicals now used in Sri Lankan agriculture. Dr Lionel gives their trade names, official names and the class of chemicals to which they belong. The list has been made available to all the country’s doctors. But it is also seen as a handy document in the rest of Asia where such chemicals are in widespread use.
Preliminary findings of a survey by the Sri Lankan Department of Community Medicine show that most poisoning occurs in areas where rice, vegetables and other food crops are grown. It is rare in plantation areas where tea, rubber and coconut are grown. One of the highest death tolls is in the northern part of the island where large fields of onions, chillies and tobacco are grown. Farmers have been found not only spraying these chemicals with gay abandon but are doing so bare-bodied. They have also been found using pesticides far in excess of the recommended amount. The chemicals are not sufficiently diluted and so endanger not only human beings but animals, plants, soil and the environment in general.
In September, 1980 the government passed the Pesticides Act aimed at regulating the import packing, labelling, storage, transport, sale and use of pesticides.
In addition, a countrywide investigation of food contaminants is being conducted with assistance from the UN Food and Agricultural Organization. Testing and monitoring for minute quantities of pesticides in food, water and the environment will take place on an island-wide scale.
Sri Lankan fisheries are also suffering from chemical overkill. Authorities complain that a Chinese assisted inland fisheries programme is being hit by uncontrolled use of pesticides in fields bordering lakes, rivers and holding tanks where fresh water fish are bred. Large numbers of fish are dying mysteriously and Chinese fisheries biologists have warned that marine life may be severely affected.
Before chemicals were introduced Sri Lankan farmers used the traditional, inexpensive and harmless organic farming and growing methods. But massive advertising and other enticements by multinational chemical companies have seduced Sri Lankan farmers and fruit growers into their net.
There is an urgent need for the Sri Lankan government to enforce legislation to protect its citizens from the hazards of poison being marketed as miracle ‘medicines’ that can solve all agricultural ills. As Sri Lankan doctors rightly warn, these chemicals will get rid of the farmer as fast as they are getting rid of pests.
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