February 2, 2009 / 12:48 AM / in 10 years

Asian plantation workers face weedkiller health threat

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Malaysian plantation worker Rajam Murugasu became blind in one eye after she slipped and accidentally sprayed the weedkiller paraquat in her face.

“It was raining. I fell down and the chemical shot straight into my eye,” said Murugasu, a 40-year-old mother of four. “I was in and out of hospital for a whole year,” she told Reuters at Teluk Intan town in northwestern Malaysia.

Paraquat, a herbicide that protects crop yields by killing weeds that compete for water, nutrients, and light, is banned in the European Union and restricted to licensed users in the United States, New Zealand and parts of Latin America.

Yet it is widely used in China, India, the Philippines as well as Malaysia, where the government reversed a ban in 2006 after growers demanded they be allowed to use the cheap herbicide.

“Paraquat has serious implications for one’s health and there is no antidote. It is not right for a human to be handling it,” said Irene Fernandez of Tenaganita, a rights group in Malaysia.

Paraquat, which contains quaternary ammonium compound, is classified by the World Health Organization (WHO) as moderately hazardous for acute toxicity. Other herbicides are less toxic. It accounts for up to 70 percent of the chemicals used to fight weeds at plantations in Malaysia, activists say.

“There are less harmful weed killers around and we should get rid of such toxic pesticides,” said Fernandez.

“It is banned in all of the EU, so why are people in Asia putting up with this? Why such double standards? Are our lives of less value than theirs?”

Swiss paraquat manufacturer Syngenta insists the herbicide is safe and that eye protectors are required only when the weedkiller is being mixed and loaded into sprayers.

In an email reply to questions from Reuters, Syngenta said it had comprehensive data showing paraquat was safe to use.

On plantations in Malaysia, workers carry canisters of paraquat on their backs, spraying up to four gallons a day.

The wind blows the chemical into the workers’ faces and leaky canisters mean their feet and clothes get soaked with the chemical, human rights activists say.

Paraquat is absorbed through the skin and rights groups say workers who are exposed to it suffer from illnesses that range from rashes and nail loss to respiratory and kidney diseases.

There were 256 pesticide and herbicide poisoning cases in Malaysia in 1997; 183 cases in 1998; 266 cases in 1999 and 339 cases in 2000, according to a 1997-2000 study by the ministry of health. It found that the most common pesticide poisoning cases were due to paraquat.

Paraquat is widely used across Africa, Asia and Latin America. Rights groups say poisonings and fatalities regularly occur, although they have no detailed figures.

The WHO says it can be fatal if consumed or spread on the skin in a concentrated form.

LESS VALUABLE LIVES?

The chemical comes with instructions on how it can be safely used, such as the need to stop spraying when the wind picks up, and requirements for users to wear safety gear.

“But they are not told about its harms ... and again it’s too hot to use things like goggles, aprons, boots, gloves,” said Pushpa Arumugam, an activist who helps workers in Malaysia. “They can only use these for a few minutes before the goggles fog up and it’s too hot to wear them,” she said, explaining that wearing goggles in tropical climates was often not practical.

“The World Health Organization has described paraquat as being the only highly toxic herbicide of the post-war years,” said Sarojeni V. Rengam of the concern group Pesticide Action Network Asia and the Pacific, based in Penang, Malaysia.

Malaysia’s government says it is fully aware of the health hazards associated with paraquat but added that it reinstated its registration due to an appeal from the industry and users.

“(The reinstatement) is only an interim regulatory action,” said Halimi Mahmud of the Department of Agriculture’s Pesticides Board, adding that the government is still conducting a final review to determine whether it can be used in Malaysia.

“Although paraquat is currently allowed, its uses are subject to strict control ... both employers and employees are required under these regulations to ensure that paraquat is handled, used and stored properly to avoid any health hazards to man.”

Syngenta said paraquat was safe to use.

“Face shields are only required for the short moments when the concentrate is being mixed and loaded, but not during application of the diluted product. Therefore the argument of fogging up goggles is not relevant during application,” it said.

“The claim of nail damage was made many years ago in situations where the most basic measures of hygiene were ignored ... (for example) failure to wash hands after exposure to the product. Recommended use guidelines and the most basic measures of hygiene, for all crop protection products, not just paraquat, ensure that such damage does not occur,” Syngenta added.

That is sometimes easier said than done for laborers in Asia and other developing regions where lax safety standards are widespread and workers, dependent on their meager salaries to support families, have little say over work conditions.

“I knew it was dangerous because the grass would die. But it is the only work available and my kids were too small then and I had to work ... My husband is a drunk and spends all his money on drinking and the family depends on me entirely,” said Murugasu.

Editing by Megan Goldin

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