Oct 3 - HERBICIDES are the most commonly used chemicals in plantations,followed by insecticides, fungicides and rodenticides.About 80 per cent of plantations and farms use the herbicide paraquat,commonly called kopi-o, because of its coffee colour.
On Aug 27, 2002, the Malaysian Pesticide Control Board announced itsdecision to ban paraquat after intense lobbying by public interest andenvironmental groups as well as numerous reports on its acute toxicity.The board effected the ban by not registering it. How- ever, it allowed atwo-year reprieve up to September next year, to use up current stocks.More than 30,000 crop- sprayers, mostly women, were exposed to this Class1b poison for about eight hours a day. Many were reported to have sufferedfrom various adverse effects, including severe skin diseases, vaginal andgenital burns, respiratory problems, nervous disorders, still births,headaches, dizziness and blurred vision. The herbicide was first marketedin 1961 and was introduced as a safer alternative to the highly dangeroussodium arsonite.
A 2003 letter to the editor from a former estate supervisor with 34 yearsexperience in the industry stated: "When it was first introduced, we weretold it was so safe that one could use bare hands to stir the chemicalsolution, and spraying could also be done with power mist applicators."Most estates fell for the sales talk with disastrous results becauselabourers found their nails falling off. They also became ill with skinpoisoning, blurred vision and swelling of testicles, among others." TheWomen and Migrant Rights Association (Tenaga- nita), with support of thePoison Centre of Universiti Sains Malaysia and Pesticide Action NetworkAsia Pacific, conducted a two-year community-based study in the late1990s, monitoring the impact of pesticides on women sprayers inplantations in three States. Besides exhibiting the symptoms mentioned,their study found that blood samples taken from these women revealed adepression in acetyl cholinesterase enzyme activity confirmation ofpesticide poisoning. The study confirmed that paraquat was the most usedherbicide by the women.
The ban was strongly opposed by the plantation sector represented by theMalaysian Palm Oil Association (MPOA) and the National Association ofSmallholders (Nash) as well as Syngenta Crop Protection Sdn Bhd,manufacturer of the Gramoxone brand of paraquat. Nash president DatukMazlan Jamaludin argued that 90 per cent of the small-holders useGramoxone and that the ban would also reduce the annual income of oil palmand rubber small-holders by 6.8 per cent and 5.8 per cent respectively.Early last year, MPOA chief executive M.R. Chandran pointed out that theban would increase the Malaysian palm oil sector's cost disadvantageagainst international competitors by US$8.20 (RM31.10) per tonne in themedium term. And late last year, Syngenta urged the Government to lift theban on paraquat based on the European Union's findings that the pesticideno longer posed a danger to health. But the Agriculture Ministry put itsfoot down and stated that the ban would remain on the grounds that itposes unacceptable risks to the main users and that less riskyalternatives are readily available in the market. The executive directorof PAN, Sarojini Renggam, says the plantation sector has adopted a veryshort-sighted and self-centred view. "Why have they not taken into accountthe medical cost of the estate workers and the cost of environmentalpollution." Paraquat has been banned by 13 Governments to date, followinga long history of connection to poisonings and deaths. And Malaysia is thefirst Asian country to reject it.
The ban on paraquat is the first step towards removing poisonous anddangerous chemicals from plantations and farms. Sarojini says the banshould also be extended to other herbicides, especially organochlorinepesticides which contain endocrine disrupting compounds (EDCs).
EDCs disrupt the body's endocrine system the system of glands thatrelease hormones directly into the blood stream. They bind with hormonereceptors in the body and prevent the real hormone from exerting itseffects, produce a different effect or exaggerate an effect. EDCs havebeen known to affect proper brain development and sexual development,intelligence, behaviour and resistance to disease. A study published inthe journal Epidemiology last year reported a strong association betweenthe use of herbicides and fungicides and the risk of infertility in women.Another study published in the same year in Environmental HealthPerspectives, a publication of the US National Institute of EnvironmentalHealth Sciences, reported that men from central Missouri, the area understudy, who were exposed to pesticides used on crops were more likely tohave defective sperm and low sperm counts compared with counterparts withlittle or no exposure.