by Jose Eduardo Mora
SAN JOSE - Environmental groups are waging war on the herbicide
paraquat, considered toxic to the environment and human health,
and banned in several countries. But this synthetic chemical continues
to be sold and used, largely unregulated, in Central America.
An average of 400,000 intoxications resulting from pesticides
are reported in the region each year, and paraquat, whose producers
say it is harmless if used with the necessary precautions, heads
the list of agro-chemicals known as ”the dirty dozen”.
The herbicide can be obtained even by children, says activist
and researcher Hernán Hermosilla, member of the Emaús
Forum, an organisation working to ban the chemical in Costa Rica
and supporting regional initiatives in the same vein.
”Paraquat continues to be used in the Central American
countries because it is effective in killing weeds, but especially
because of reasons of a commercial nature,” Hermosilla said
in a conversation with Tierramérica.
There are 39 products with paraquat or its derivatives circulating
in the regional market, under names like: Gramoxone, Chapeador,
Atila, Graminex, Serquat, Escopeta, Ultragrass, Fuego and Actor.
Farmers use paraquat on a wide range of crops, including cotton,
coffee, African palm rice, sugarcane, cacao, and banana, and often
fail to take into account its environmental effects, especially
on the soil, and its threat to human health.
Paraquat is what is known as a persistent agro-toxin, which after
a series of applications tends to accumulate in the soil, remaining
there 16 months (under anaerobic conditions in the laboratory)
and up to 13 years (in field studies), according to the Emaús
Exposure to this herbicide through ingestion, inhalation or skin
contact can, in the long term, lead to kidney, liver and heart
problems, as well as scarring of the lungs and a narrowing of
the esophagus. There is no antidote to reverse the effects of
this chemical on the human body.
Studies involving farm workers in Taiwan and Costa Rica also
linked paraquat to skin cancer, says researcher Katharina Wesseling,
from IRET, the Costa Rican National University's institute on
IRET presented a regional report two weeks ago on the use of
paraquat and the lack of adequate mechanisms for protecting those
who handle the substance, mostly smaller farmers.
The workers should be wearing a special protective suit and mask,
and the spraying devices must be free of all leaks, said Hermosilla.
”It is highly unlikely that small and medium farmers have
the appropriate equipment. For them, it would be like having to
buy a space suit, and even with the necessary precautions it wouldn't
be completely safe to apply paraquat,” he said.
Data from RAPAC (Action Network on Pesticides and Alternatives
for Central America), indicate that, on average, each country
in the region sees 200 deaths resulting from agro-chemical poisoning,
and spends seven million dollars on treating such intoxications
If one adds the costs to the poisoning-victims' families and
the workdays lost by those who become ill from the chemical, the
annual sum could reach 19 million dollars, according to the calculations
of Mauricio Sermeño, of the Salvadoran Ecological Unit.
In El Salvador there are an average 20,000 paraquat poisonings
annually, but official figures are much lower, Sermeño
The Pan-American Health Organisation concluded in a study of
pesticide use in Central America that for every recorded case
of intoxication there are 80 to 99 that go unreported.
RAPAL, the Latin American pesticide action network, is conducting
an intensive campaign to ban paraquat use in the region.
Chile is the only country in Latin America that has set restrictions
for the pesticide: it cannot be applied by aerial means.
Transnational fruit companies like Chiquita and Dole, which grow
bananas in Central America, stopped using paraquat in October
Sweden banned the substance in 1983, and was followed by Austria,
Denmark, Finland, Hungary and Slovenia. In 2002, Malaysia joined
the group of countries that have declared war on this herbicide,
says journalist and researcher John Madeley in his report, ”Syngenta's
Controversial Herbicide”, in reference to paraquat's global
Syngenta took over the company Zeneca, which was the leading
producer of the herbicide. Today, the chemical is produced in
massive quantities in China, where Syngenta operates an enormous
plant, says Madeley.
El Salvador's National Commission on Pesticides is considering
the possibility of restricting the use of several agro-chemicals,
including paraquat. But if the situation in the region is to change,
citizen pressure on politicians is essential, says Sermeño.