Pesticide Action Network Updates Service (PANUPS)
Paraquat is a broad spectrum and acutely toxic herbicide that is banned or severely restricted in 11countries. An international campaign is underway to pressure Syngenta to stop production of paraquat because of its high toxicity. (See PANUPS of October 1, 2002, Call on Syngenta to Stop Production of Paraquat, at http://www.panna.org/resources/panups/panup_20021001.dv.html or the web site for the Berne Declaration at http://www.evb.ch.) Syngenta, the world's largest agro-chemical corporation, markets paraquat in more than 100 countries despite its known health consequences, and has recently established a new paraquat factory in China.
Syngenta does not deny the detrimental health effects of paraquat, but claims that these effects are preventable when the herbicide is used "safely." According to the company, safe application of paraquat requires rubber protective clothing. In reality, however, paraquat is extensively used in warm, humid climates where such clothing is unavailable or intolerable to use. Syngenta points to their efforts to establish stewardship and training programs, but as the poisoning in the Dominican Republic indicates, training programs cannot be relied upon to protect the public health from a pesticide with this high level of risk.
Paraquat, along with the other pesticides on PAN International's list of Dirty Dozen pesticides, was banned in the Dominican Republic in 1991. However agrochemical companies successfully argued that paraquat posed no serious health effects and was necessary because of high labor costs. Its regulatory status was reduced to "restricted" which, has led to widespread use of the herbicide throughout the country. Between 1995 and 1999 annual importation of paraquat in the Dominican Republic more than doubled, with 1999 imports over 920,000 liters. This figure does not account for illegal importation. Paraquat is commonly used on bananas, coffee, and cacao as well as on roadsides, public plazas and gardens.
The Department of Environmental Health of the Province of Santiago attributes the poisoning of the 153 workers to lack of suitable training and suggests that pesticide training programs are either ineffective or nonexistent. Rafael Martinex, coordinator of Environmental Health, explained that the applicator did not have enough experience to account for a change in the wind that carried the paraquat laterally into the factory. He also commented that had the workers been directly sprayed with the herbicide, the effects of poisoning would have been much more severe.
A recent report, Paraquat: Syngenta's Controversial Herbicide, documents the effects of chronic paraquat exposure among agricultural workers. Skin contact alone can cause systemic damage, as well as skin irritation, blistering, ulceration, and necrosis or cell death. After repeated use, paraquat breaks down natural skin barriers, resulting in higher absorption and damaged skin greatly increases skin penetration of the herbicide. Eye injuries, nosebleeds, and respiratory effects are also common symptoms of chronic exposure. Syngenta attempts to justify sales of paraquat by suggesting that information on long-term health effects is unavailable.
Several substitutes for paraquat exist and are currently in use. Crop rotation, mulching, and intercropping (planting cover crops) are sustainable and effective means of non-chemical weed control in many situations.
Contact: PANNA, or Andrea Brechelt, Fundación Agricultura y Medio Ambiente, Republica Dominica, phone (809) 482-0561, fax (809) 482-7463, email firstname.lastname@example.org.