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The Facts


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The facts on Pesticides

Pesticides are big business. If you drew a chart of the growth of the industry from virtually zero in the 1940s to an agrochemical market worth $31 billion in 1998, the incline would resemble a cliff face. And it grows each year: 1998 was up 5% on 1997.1 Corporations are constantly merging to form ever-bigger conglomerations; for example, Novartis was formed from the merger of Ciba and Sandoz and is now planning to merge with Zeneca to form Syngenta. AgrEvo (itself a merger of Hoechst and Schering) is merging with Rhône-Poulenc to form Aventis. The two new corporations will be the biggest agrochemical companies in the world.

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A list of 12 dangerous pesticides was drawn up in the early 1980s by the Pesticide Action Network, which sought to ban them all. Many have since been banned. Aldicarb, lindane (gamma-HCH); paraquat and pentachlorophenol remain in use and others are still found in our foods because they are so persistent in the environment. Almost all are in the World Health Organization’s ‘hazardous’ category.

Active ingredient WHO classification Type of pesticide Health effects
Aldicarb Extremely hazardous Carbamate insecticide used on citrus fruits, peanuts, vegetables Highly toxic to workers and wildlife
Aldrin Highly hazardous; widely banned for agricultural use Organochlorine insecticide Potentially cancerous and affects reproductive system
Chlordane Moderately hazardous Organochlorine insecticide used on crops and termites Persistent in the environment
Chlordimeform Moderately hazardous; banned Insecticide that was mainly used on cotton Potentially cancerous
DBCP Extremely hazardous Fumigant and insecticide Potentially cancerous, causes sterility, contaminates groundwater
DDT Highly hazardous; widely banned for agricultural use Organophosphate insecticide now mainly used against mosquitoes where it is still the cheapest, most effective killer Widely used after its discovery in 1945, since proven to have negative effects on health and the environment
Dieldrin Highly hazardous; widely banned for agricultural use Organochlorine insecticide used on fruit, soil and seeds Birth defects, cancers and serious environmental impact
EDB (ethylene dibromide) Not classified Soil fumigant Evidence of cancer-causing effects
Endrin Highly hazardous Organochlorine insecticide Toxic to fish, bees, wildlife
Heptachlor Moderately hazardous; widely banned for agricultural use Organochlorine insecticide used for soil pests, mosquitoes, fire ants Persistent in the environment, causes cancer in mice
Hexachlorobenzene Extremely hazardous Organochlorine fungicide widely used in the past Adverse effects on humans and the environment
Lindane (Gamma-HCH) Moderately hazardous; banned in Sweden and New Zealand Insecticide used in agriculture and for head lice control Persistent in the environment and with cancerous and endocrine-disrupting effects
Paraquat Moderately hazardous Herbicide and drying agent used on rice and soya beans Harmful to animals
Parathion Extremely hazardous Organophosphate insecticide used on citrus and cotton and more generally Extremely hazardous and toxic; a teaspoon spilled on the skin can be fatal; continues to cause extensive poisonings
Parathion-methyl Extremely hazardous Organophosphate insecticide As above
Pentachlorophenol Extremely hazardous Fungicide used on cereals and mushrooms Toxic; dangerous to fish
Toxaphene Moderately hazardous; banned Insecticide used on cattle, grain, fruit and vegetables Extremely toxic to fish and harmful to other animals
2,4,5,T Moderately hazardous; banned Phenoxyacetic acid herbicide Harmful to fish, humans and the environment

The world’s five main pesticide-producing and exporting states are France, Germany, the US, Britain and Switzerland although the fastest-growing markets are in Brazil, Germany, Spain, France, the Netherlands, Australia and Canada. Many of the same countries also import pesticides: imports grew from a world total of $8.0 billion in 1991 to $11.6 billion in 1998.

Pesticides exports/imports by country3 in $ millions

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Pesticides are meant to kill. They fall into five main chemical categories, all of which have different effects: organochlorines (eg DDT) which are persistent in air and water and remain for a long time in body fat; organophosphates (eg parathion) which damage the nervous system and were originally developed as nerve gases in the First World War; phenoxyacetic acids (eg 2,4,5-T, 2,4-D which combined made up Agent Orange); carbamates (eg aldicarb) which destroy an enzyme necessary to a pest’s nervous system; and synthetic pyrethroids (cypermethrin, deltamethrin etc). In 1998, herbicides accounted for 49% of world pesticide use, followed by insecticides at 27%, fungicides at 20% and others 4%.

Half of all agrochemicals are used on the five main crops – cereals, corn/maize, rice, cotton and soya.

World agrochemical market by crop.


Signed up: South Indian girl outside a shop selling seeds and pesticides.


Steve Lewis / Still Pictures


The hazards of pesticide use are now widely recognized, although statistics are hard to gather. The World Health Organization estimates that at least three million people are poisoned by pesticides every year and more than 200,000 die. It is estimated that up to 25 million agricultural workers are poisoned every year.

• In Malaysia and Sri Lanka, 7 to 15 per cent of farmers experience poisoning at least once in their lives.

• In Thailand, a survey of 250 government hospitals and health centres revealed that some 5,500 people were admitted for pesticide poisoning in 1985 alone, of whom 384 died.

• In the Philippines, 50 per cent of rice farmers have suffered from sickness due to pesticide use.

• In Latin America, 10 to 30 per cent of agricultural workers show inhibition of the blood enzyme, cholinesterase, which is a sign of organophosphate poisoning.

• In Venezuela, 10,300 cases of poisoning with 576 deaths occurred between 1980 and 1990.

• In Brazil, 28 per cent of farmers in Santa Catarina state say they have been poisoned at least once and in Parana state some 7,800 people were poisoned between 1982 and 1992.

• In Egypt, more than 50 per cent of cotton workers in the 1990s suffered symptoms of chronic pesticide poisoning, including neurological and vision disorders.

• In China, 42,800 new cases of pesticide poisoning were reported in 1994, including 3,900 fatalities. Many were said to be victims of home-made cocktails marketed illegally.7

1 Agrow report No 330 11 June 1999.
2 Agrow report No 335 27 August 1999.
3 Food and Agriculture Organization.
4 BAA/Wood Mackenzie in Agrow report No 330.
5 Our Stolen Future Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski and John Peterson Myers (Abacus 1996).
6 Organic Cotton Dorothy Myers and Sue Stolton (Intermediate Technology 1999).
7 Bugs in the System edited by William Vorley and Dennis Keeney, Earthscan, London 1998

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