Last week, without fanfare, and largely unnoticed by the press, the world moved one step closer to calling time on a substance that has been blamed for tens of thousands of deaths worldwide every year.
In a small meeting room in Rome, the Chemical Review Committee of the Rotterdam PIC Convention recommended that products containing the weedkiller paraquat in volumes 20 per cent or above be added to the list of chemicals covered by the treaty. This seemingly minor amendment could massively limit the use of the pesticide.
Paraquat is one of the deadliest pesticides available in the world today. It is responsible for a huge proportion of the more than 250,000 deaths that occur from pesticide poisoning every year. The vast majority of these deaths are suicides. Paraquat is chosen precisely because it is so deadly and because – above a certain concentration – there is no effective antidote. As little as a mouthful of 20 per cent solution paraquat is likely to cause death.
And accidental and occupational poisonings are also common. Inhalation and even skin contact are important pathways for poisoning and intoxication of farmworkers is common wherever it is used.
Death by paraquat poisoning is slow and painful. Soon after swallowing, sufferers will experience lesions and pains in the mouth and stomach, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, and blood in faeces. Within two to three days they will see reduced urine volume and jaundice, a cough, difficulty in breathing, lung oedema (swelling), convulsions, coma and finally death. But it can take weeks for this to occur.
Examining pesticide abuses in Sri Lanka in 2007, researchers Andrew Dawson and Nick Buckley came across this tragic, but all too common case: ‘Late last year in a hospital (...), there was a 16–year old girl who had swallowed a mouthful of paraquat immediately following an argument with her parents. The paraquat had been stored inside her house. She was cyanosed and apparently within hours or days of death, having suffered a fortnight of steadily increasing breathlessness. She could not eat or sleep because of dyspnoea, and even had difficulty drinking. She was frightened and no longer wished to die, if indeed she had ever wanted to’. Sri Lanka has since banned paraquat.
The decision to recommend the addition of paraquat to the Rotterdam Convention list was fought tooth and nail by Swiss chemical giant Syngenta – which has a more than three quarters market share of paraquat sales. It has lobbied hard to keep the pesticide out of the treaty, and is likely to continue to do so in the coming months.
But why was the multinational so keen to stop the listing of paraquat in an obscure treaty that technically only requires countries to share information about the chemicals, and for importers to give 'prior informed consent'?
The answer is that, in practice, many developing countries see inclusion as a green light to banning the import of substances. What is more, many retailers use the Convention to decide which pesticides to restrict in their supply chains. At the moment, the Co-op and Marks and Spencer are the only major UK retailers to have taken steps to restrict the use of paraquat by their suppliers. If it is listed, we can expect all of the big supermarkets to come under pressure to follow suit.
But while the Committee’s recommendation is good news, it only applies products with more than 20 per cent concentration of paraquat and it has yet to be ratified by all of the Parties to the treaty – this won’t happen before 2013 – leaving a window for manufacturers to increase their lobbying efforts and block the move. In the meantime tens of thousands of people could die.
Keith Tyrell is Director of Pesticide Action Network UK www.pan-uk.org
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