Albion Monitor /News

Pesticides Heaviest Toll on S. American Children

by Zoraida Portillo

(IPS) LIMA-- A study by doctors in Chile, where chemical pesticides are heavily sprayed on more than half of all fruit orchards, has revealed a high rate of toxic poisoning and infants born with serious birth defects.

The study, carried out by gynecologists of the Rancagua Hospital found a significant rate of birth defects in new-borns: 3.6 per 1,000, almost double the national rate of 1.93 per 1000.

The author of the study, Doctor Maria Victoria Mella, says there is no doubt that lengthy, unprotected exposure to insecticides is the cause of additional defects. Similarly, elevated rates of birth defects have been found in areas of Colombia where the commercial production of flowers relies heavily on insecticide application, according to medical studies.

The latest survey here underlined the increase in use of chemical pesticides worldwide in the past 40 years. In the United States alone, half-a-million tons are used each year. Latin America consumes 11 percent of the world's annual production of agro-chemicals.

Most poisoning victims are day laborers and rural children and since neither group comprises a political constituency, their well-being is largely ignored
Despite the widespread use of chemical insecticides, pests have not been eliminated and, in fact, many have become more resistant. In 1940 there were only 13 insect species that were immune to chemicals; today, there are more than 500.

There has also been a rise in the number of people poisoned by insecticides. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that between three and-a-half million and five million people are poisoned each year. Of these, 400,000 die -- most of them in developing countries, WHO says.

According to pesticide specialists, only one percent of all poisonings occur in the industrialized North, although 80 percent of all insecticides are applied in that region. However, the relationship between usage and incidence of poisoning is reversed in developing countries.

Throughout Latin America, permissive legislation allows the use of insecticides that have been banned on other continents. Most poisoning victims are day laborers and rural children. Since neither group comprises a political constituency, their well-being is largely ignored.

Latin American laborers are usually illiterate, and consequently they apply insecticides without taking specified precautions. In fact, most are unaware of the risks to which they're exposed. Parents often tell children to apply insecticides since fumigation is one of the least physically demanding agricultural tasks.

According to documents of the World Health Organization "children often experience more insecticidal exposure than adults. Furthermore, at similar exposure levels, children tend to absorb more chemical than adults."

In 1994, an Ecuadoran non-governmental organization found especially high levels of organophosphates in children working in orchards.

The World Health Organization points out that many chemical compounds used as insecticides lower fertility, induce miscarriage, cause congenital deformation and are a risk factor for contracting cancer.

Chilean geneticist Anibal Escalante said that the absorption of chemical pesticides is especially dangerous during the first trimester of pregnancy, and can result in severe neurological damage to the fetus. Nevertheless, Escalante points out that increased risk persists throughout pregnancy.

A study conducted in 1996 by the non-governmental Institute for Defense of the Environment found that the men, women and children living in three Peruvian valleys where chemical pesticide use was particularly high, all experienced a marked reduction in quality of life.

Eighty percent of all agricultural workers examined in the Peruvian study -- both men and women -- showed signs of chronic agro-chemical absorption. In 72 percent of these cases, enduring toxicity had resulted in loss of memory, depression, anxiety, as well as language deficits and other signs of neurological dysfunction.

75 percent of breast milk samples -- and 95 percent of cow milk samples -- contain toxic chemicals in concentrations that exceed tolerance limits
Luis Gomero, coordinator of the Action Network for Alternatives to Agro-chemical Use, says that the absorption of chemical pesticides affects an enzyme which normally facilitates motor responses and other nEuronal connections.

Gomero points out that "it is common to see youngsters engaged in fumigation who display memory loss and slow reflexes. What's more, these kids don't even realize what's happening. Unfortunately, the documentation of chronic intoxication requires specialized testing."

Chemical pesticides respect no limits. They cross the placenta and contaminate mother's milk. Some 2.7 percent of women agricultural workers examined in Peru have given birth to deformed children. Likewise, 75 percent of breast milk samples -- and 95 percent of cow milk samples -- contain toxic chemicals in concentrations that exceed tolerance limits, studies have revealed.

The Peruvian study showed that basic recommendations concerning pesticide usage were not followed by agricultural laborers, who, in fact, were unaware of what precautions should be taken. Basic precautions require that fields not be sprayed when laborers are at work, that fumigators wear protective clothing, and that following fumigation, workers should shower using lots of soap, and then put on clean clothes.

Inquiries concerning basic agro-chemical protocols elicited comments such as: "How am I going to take a shower if we don't have water?" "Sometimes I feel strange -- nauseous -- but then I rest for a while and when I feel better I start to work again," and "Sometimes I throw up after I fumigate."

All 150 women interviewed in the Peruvian study say that they perform field-work barefoot and without gloves. As soon as they get home, they prepare food or touch other members of the family -- including babies. Many sleep in the same clothes they wore while fumigating.

The study also reveals that many Latin American peasants experience daily palpitations, and that women don't receive any training in the preparation and use of agro-chemicals since it is believed that women aren't particularly involved in this sort of work.

According to Gloria Cornejo, coordinator of the Institute for the Defense of the Environment, however, this impression is sorely mistaken.

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Albion Monitor April 10, 1997 (

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