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Tribunal Investigates Children’s Pesticide Poisoning
When twenty four children in a village in Peru die after ingesting a toxic pesticide, who bears responsibility? The Citizens Tribunal on the Tauccamarca Case has found the Bayer chemical company responsible for violating international safety standards, and the Peruvian government responsible for failing to protect the human rights and physical safety of its poorest and most vulnerable citizens.
High in the Peruvian Andes in the windswept town of Tauccamarca, twenty four of the village’s forty eight schoolchildren died in 1999 after drinking a milk substitute contaminated with methyl parathion. Methyl parathion is a highly toxic organophosphate pesticide sold in Peru by Bayer under the trade name Folidol. The police investigation found that a village woman had mixed the white powdered pesticide into a bag of government-supplied powdered milk substitute and placed it in the entry way to her home with the intention of killing a dog that was chasing her chickens.
Two children passing her house on the way to school saw the open bag of powdered milk, and unaware that it was contaminated (methyl parathion does not have a strong chemical odor), brought it to school where it was served at breakfast. The results were tragic.
When the students began to foam at the mouth and writhe in pain, nearby parents ran to the school to carry their children down the mountain to the nearest health post, an hour’s walk from the village. Over half of the children died in their parents’ arms before reaching help. Preliminary evaluations confirm that the surviving children will suffer long-term developmental and neurological consequences that are common in cases of organophosphate poisoning.
The Tauccamarca families have repeatedly attempted to bring the case to official attention since that horrible day, to secure medical attention for the surviving children and justice for those who died. The parents are seeking to ensure that extremely toxic pesticides like methyl parathion are no longer allowed to be sold freely throughout the countryside, where poverty and illiteracy make “safe use” of such poisons virtually impossible. The families’ primary goal is to ensure that tragedies like Tauccamarca never occur again in Peru. To date, six years after the poisonings, neither the government nor Bayer has provided the families with any assistance.
To support the Tauccamarca community and investigate Bayer’s and the Peruvian government’s lack of action and failure to accept responsibility, Peru’s Pesticide Action Network organization (known by its Spanish acronym RAAA) organized the Tribunal in coordination with Peruvian human rights, environmental, and labor rights organizations. On October 21, 2005 the Tribunal heard testimony from the families, experts in indigenous cultures of the Andes, Luis Gomero of RAAA, and a representative of the Peruvian Human Rights Ombudsman’s office. Tribunal members included Maria Elena Foronda, President of the National Environmental Society of Peru; Nicolas Espejo, of the Legal Research Center at the Diego Portales University in Chile; and Dr. Flora Luna, President of the Peruvian Medical Association.
“Listening to the Tauccamara parents tell what happened was wrenching. No child should suffer and no parent should have to endure what happened on that day, or afterwards,” noted Monica Moore, Co-Director of PAN North America, who attended the Tribunal as a member of a PAN International delegation. “Their strength and courage in insisting the Government and Bayer must finally act to prevent future poisonings is almost unbelievable under the circumstances they face.”
Peru’s first elected indigenous legislator, Congress member Paulina Arpasi spoke forcefully about the lack of justice for poor and marginalized campesino communities in Peru, and joined the families’ call for the full Congress to approve the results of an official congressional investigation into the tragedy. This investigation found both government agencies and Bayer responsible for the poisonings, but has been shelved under pressure from the industry for more than four years.
The Citizens’ Tribunal found that Bayer failed to implement even the most basic safety precautions to prevent the misuse of methyl parathion in Peru. Bayer marketed the highly toxic product in a simple plastic bag with label instructions only in Spanish. Many Peruvians, including most of the inhabitants of Tauccamarca, speak only the indigenous language Quechua and are illiterate. Bayer’s label offered no pictograms to indicate the toxicity of its contents to users — the only image on the package was of colorful, healthy vegetables. Many countries require that chemical companies add a stenching agent to dangerous substances to warn consumers of their toxicity, but Bayer sold methyl parathion in Peru without a telltale warning smell.
The woman in Tauccamarca who mixed methyl parathion with powdered milk substitute told the police that she did not know how toxic the pesticide was, but Bayer cannot make the same claim. The Tribunal noted that the company has long known that methyl parathion is widely misused and a serious threat to health in developing countries around the world. Bayer stopped selling methyl parathion in Germany in 1989 due to citizen pressure, but continued to market it to other countries. When a Danish video produced in 1997 revealed extraordinary numbers of methyl parathion poisonings throughout Central America, Danish manufacturer Cheminova was forced to withdraw its product from Nicaragua. The US EPA banned most uses of methyl parathion in 1999.
Despite these and other well-documented dangers, Bayer continued to aggressively market methyl parathion in developing countries long after its use was prohibited or severely restricted in industrialized countries. The deaths of Tauccamarca’s schoolchildren were a foreseeable and preventable tragedy.
The Citizen’s Tribunal also found that the Peruvian government bears responsibility for the tragedy. The Peruvian Ministry of Agriculture failed to enforce Peruvian laws that limit the sale and use of highly toxic pesticides and require appropriate protective packaging and labeling. In addition, the Tribunal found that the Peruvian Ministry of Health did not provide adequate medical attention. The nearest health post, an hour away from the village, was neither staffed nor equipped with the antidote to pesticide poisoning when the desperate parents arrived bearing their dying children.
Based on the evidence of the case of Tauccamarca, the citizens Tribunal questioned that the Peruvian government had complied with its obligations to protect the basic human right to life, health care, and provide special protections for children. The Tribunal called on the Peruvian government to ensure that the surviving children in Tauccamarca receive immediate and adequate medical attention, that the village’s school is staffed with a special education teacher, and that the government investigate and sanction all responsible parties. Equally important, the Tribunal called on the government to ban the sale and use of pesticides designated by the World Health Organization as “extremely” and “highly” hazardous (WHO Category 1a and 1b pesticides).
The Tribunal also called on Bayer to assume responsibility for its role in the tragedy, provide compensation to the victims’ families, and create a fund to cover the costs of independent medical monitoring for the surviving children of Tauccamarca. The Tribunal also demanded Bayer take steps to prevent future tragedies by immediately withdrawing from the Peruvian market all their WHO Category 1a and 1b pesticides, and ceasing export of these pesticides to any country where they cannot be safely used under existing socioeconomic conditions.
Sources: Citizens Tribunal Verdict. 6 December 2005. Lima Peru. Full text in Spanish available on the PAN Peru website, http://www.raaa.org/Tauccamarca/principal.htm ; Action and Alternatives to the Use of Pesticides Network website (in Spanish): http://www.raaa.org/Tauccamarca/cronologia.htm ; Rosenthal, Erika. 2003. The Tragedy of Tauccamarca: A Human Rights Perspective on the Pesticide Poisoning Deaths of 24 Children in the Peruvian Andes . Journal of International Occupational Health 9:53-538.
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