Health Effects Of Pesticides On Former IRRI Workers

Romeo F. Quijano, M.D. and Sampaguita Quijano, B.S. MBB
Dept. of Pharmacology and Toxicology, College of Medicine, Univ. of the Phils. Manila; Pesticide Action Network Philippines


Pesticides have been widely documented to have deleterious effects on health and the environment, and research efforts have been done all across the globe to examine the effects of pesticides on people’s health in the work place and in communities1,2,3. In the Philippines, community monitoring activities have been done mostly in the rural areas. One particular study was done in the village of Kamukhaan, Davao del Sur. Several cases of poisoning, sickness, and death have occurred ever since a banana plantation moved in next to the community, exposing the village to large doses of pesticides the plantation used to grow its cash crop.4
Although studies have been done to monitor the health of people in plantations and farming communities, at present there seems to be little or no studies on pesticide practices in research institutions in the country. This study attempts to explore the effects of pesticide practices and pesticide exposure on workers who formerly worked for a scientific institution, namely, IRRI.
The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) is an agricultural research and training organization based in the Philippines. The Institute has laboratories and training facilities on a 252-hectare experimental farm on the main campus of the University of the Philippines Los Banos. IRRI employs hundreds of scientific and support staff, 95% of whom are Filipinos. 5
According to IRRI, its main goal is “to find sustainable ways to improve the well-being of present and future generations of poor rice farmers and consumers while at the same time protecting the environment”.5 The research center was established supposedly “to help poor rice farmers in developing countries grow more rice on less land using less water, less labor, and fewer chemical inputs”. In line with this, IRRI developed the first semi-dwarf breeding lines for rice in the mid-1960s. Pushed by international institutions, governments, and large agrochemical companies, the new grain varieties rapidly engulfed farming systems and triggered the so-called “Green Revolution”.5 During this time, IRRI’s researches and promotion of High-Yielding Varieties (HYVs) resulted in small farmers’ intensive use of pesticides. In the Philippines, pesticide importation grew fivefold from 1972 to 1978 alone.6
Over the years, rice scientists have incorporated elements of resistance to major insects and diseases in successive modern varieties.5 Last year, IRRI announced that a re-engineered variety of high-yield, pest resistant rice was ready for distribution to farmers. The NPT (New Plant Type), as it was called, was claimed to have substantially higher yield and supposedly needs fewer chemicals to protect it from pests and diseases.7
IRRI also claimed to have embarked on a campaign last year to reduce the use of pesticides in rice production, in the wake of studies that showed that the chemicals cause more damage than benefits. Citing a 1995 report titled: “The impact of pesticides on farmer health: a medical and economic analysis of the Philippines” by P.L. Pingali, the IRRI said that the value of crops lost to pests is lower than the cost of treating diseases caused by pesticides. 8
“The health costs incurred by farmers exposed to pesticides are 61 percent higher than those of farmers who are not exposed,” it said.8
At the IRRI’s main experimental farm, IRRI claimed to have reduced pesticide use by 60 percent.9
However, the militant Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP), a farmer group with chapters all over the country, hit IRRI for “hypocrisy” in its campaign against the use of pesticides in rice production. The KMP said the campaign was just a public relations strategy of bio-tech companies to generate public acceptance for genetically-engineered (GE) seeds and food in favor of gene giants and agrochemical transnational corporations (TNCs). KMP chair Rafael Mariano said IRRI promotes GE seeds and relies on financing from chemical pesticide-producing countries where major pesticide manufacturers and agrochemical TNCs like Monsanto of the US and Syngenta of Switzerland are based.6
A local congressman also expressed doubts that IRRI’s sophisticated farming technology is really helping promote food security. He questioned whether the institution was catering to the needs of the Filipinos or only being used by foreign countries, represented by agro-chemical TNCs. The congressman asked why the Philippines keeps on importing rice when the country is supposed to be the “kitchen”. He observed that many students from other countries come here to be trained by the Filipino scientists and yet their countries are the ones exporting rice to the Philippines.10
Another farmer group, the Magsasaka at Siyentipiko para sa Pag-unlad ng Agrikultura (MASIPAG) or Farmer Scientist Partnership for Agricultural Development, also said the IRRI has not been successful in achieving food sufficiency in Asia despite pushing research for genetic engineering to the detriment of small farmers. Because of this, farmers’ groups have asked President Macapagal-Arroyo to abolish IRRI. 10
The farmers groups also urged the President to look carefully into the mandate of IRRI, especially its “immunity” from being accountable to any serious accidents or complaints from workers. Rafael Mariano from the KMP said IRRI has not been made accountable for the deaths of at least 215 former workers and other members of the community since 1975. Presidential Decree No.1620 gives IRRI a “diplomatic status” thus, its activities, whether in research or labor practices, could not be made to undergo litigation.11

This study attempts to look deeper beneath the claims and the public relations images that were created by IRRI and government pronouncements by going to the IRRI workers themselves and eliciting their experiences and views about the institution.

The objectives of this study are:
1. To determine the pesticide practices in IRRI .
2. To document the effects of pesticide practices and exposure on the health of former IRRI workers .


Initial Engagement with the Community

Prior to the actual survey, PAN(Pesticide Action Network) Philippines and IOHSAD (Institute for Occupational Health, Safety and Development) conducted a series of consultations with several groups, including the former IRRI workers union, BISSIG, and conducted community consultations, focus group discussions, and medical missions in the Barangay Paciano Rizal wherein most former IRRI workers were living. A questionnaire was developed and pre-tested.

Place and Duration of the Survey

The research was conducted in the province of Laguna. The main target were the communities in Bay and Los Baños where most of the former IRRI workers resided. The actual survey took about six (6) months (June-Nov, 200) which was conducted by BISSIG volunteers and IOHSAD staff.
The project was undertaken through the collected efforts of PAN-Philippines, IOHSAD, and BISSIG. PAN Asia Pacific provided the financial support. PUMALAG and other provincial organizations affiliated with Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP) or Peasant Movement of the Philippines and Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) or May 1st Movement rendered the much needed assistance in organizing.

Validation and Review

After the actual gathering of information, IOHSAD staff then reviewed all data, ensuring that questionnaires were properly accomplished. Validation was done through focus group discussions and repeat interviews. Encoding and processing of data were done at the IOHSAD office.


Personal Data

There were eighty-eight (88) respondents, all whom were former IRRI workers. Only three (3) women were included. Majority (95.5%) of the respondents were married. Some of them (9.1%) were in their mid-40s.
Among the respondents, six (6) were able to reach college level, while thirty-one (31) or 35.2% have attained secondary education. Twelve (12) or 13.6% finished primary education while four (4) did not have any formal education. Some did not elaborate their educational attainment.

Employment Background

A greater number of respondents have been with IRRI for more than twenty (20) years. Fourteen respondents (15.9%) have served IRRI for twenty-two (22) years. Most respondents (94.3%) were categorized as core-regular workers.
Forty-seven (47) or 53.4% attested that IRRI was their first job while about 26.1% were previously employed in research facilities of the University of the Philippines in Los Banos (UPLB) prior to their employment in IRRI. Seven (about 8.0%) respondents were engaged in livelihood farming.
Forty-seven (47) respondents, comprising about 53.4%, were classified by IRRI as field workers in central research farm (CRF), eleven (11) were deployed in the central experimental station while six (6) were from administration department, four (4) from entomology and three (3) from mechanical unit. Six (6) respondents revealed that they were classified as pesticide applicators. The remainders were from agronomy, physical plant, ground maintenance, plant breeding, rat control, soil microbiology, and other experimental units. (See Figure 1)

Work Description

All respondents were assigned to work in the experimental field for eight (8) hours performing various manual chores. (See Table 1)
Ten (10) respondents or 11.4% stated that they have been doing the abovementioned tasks for five (5) years while seven (7) or 8.0% disclosed that they have been performing various tasks for ten (10) years. In addition, twenty-eight (28) or 31.75% of the respondents confirmed that they have been in the field for more than ten (10) years, while eight (8) of them were detailed for eighteen (18) years or more.

Training and Safety Precaution

Training and/or work orientation were not sufficiently provided by IRRI management to field workers. In fact, thirty-eight (38) respondents or 43.2% divulged that they were not given any training and/or orientation while twelve (12) or 13.6% said that they have undergone training for less than a day. On the other hand, twenty-one (21) or 23.9% workers stressed that training was conducted in less than a week while fifteen (15) respondents emphasized that training for more than a week was given to them. Regarding specific training and/or orientation that should have been provided by IRRI, results are categorized based on the details and/or disclosure of former IRRI workers. (See Table 2 and Figure 2)
When asked regarding exposure to any hazard element and/or dangerous condition in their workplace, twenty-one (21) workers did not give any response while 49.4% said no. On the other hand, twenty-three (23) respondents or 26.4% indicated that they were prone to hazardous elements in the field but in varying times.
Pre-employment Medical Examination
As part of employment requisites in IRRI, seventy-two (72) or 82.8% out of eighty-eight (88) respondents said that they underwent physical examination wherein workers had chest x-ray, liver tests, and ECG. Upon regularization, workers were scheduled for an annual medical examination.
Numerous medical examinations were conducted for workers depending upon the results of their previous medical examination, as a work requirement or as requested by their immediate supervisor. (See Table 3 and Figure 3)

Chemical and/or Pesticide Exposure

The names of the pesticides mentioned by the respondents used at IRRI during the period of their employment include the following:

1. ENDRIN(endrin)
2. AZODRIN(monocrotophos)
3. FURADAN(carbofuran)
4. GRAMOXONE(paraquat)
5. ROUND-UP(glyphosate)
6. HYTOX(isoprocarb)
7. 2-4 D(2-4 D)
9. DECIS(deltamethrin)
10. MALATHION(malathion)
11. HOPCIN(b-p-methylcarbamate)
12. BASUDIN(diazinon)
13. MACHETE(butachlor)
14. THIODAN(endosulfan)
15. BRODAN(chlorpyrifos)
16. BENLATE(benomyl)
17. SEVIN(carbaryl)
18. BRESTAN(triphenyltin)
19. ZINOGAS(zinc phosphide)

Respondents were also asked to narrate the number of hours/days of their actual exposure to pesticides in the course of their employment. Results are summarized based on individual statements (See Tables 4&5, and Figures 4&5). The manner of exposure to pesticides in the conduct of their work in the field was also explored, as shown in Table 6 and Figure 6.
Sixty-nine (69) respondents or 78.4% were directly exposed to pesticides in the field. Fifty-four (54) or 61.4% further revealed that they were not given any orientation regarding the ill effects of pesticides to health and how to avoid such risk. Their only consolation was the fact that a shower was provided for them.
Regarding protective/safety suits, workers disclosed that not all gadgets were provided by IRRI as indicated by the data obtained (See Table 7 and Figure 7). It was only in the late-80s that safety gadgets and/or protective suits were provided for pesticide applicators.
To further broaden the context of pesticide exposure, respondents were asked to elaborate their working habits during and after the course of work while applying and/or using pesticides (See Table 8&9 and Figures 8&9).

Aside from pesticides, respondents were asked about their exposure to other hazardous elements in the course of their employment in IRRI. Details of answers are summarized in Table 10 and Figure 10. Forty-two (42) respondents or 47.7% stated that they were also exposed to pesticides in their home and/or farm since most of them are former tenants/farmers. Forty (40) or 45.5% of the respondents also disclosed that they were exposed to pesticides in their previous job before working in IRRI. Most of these workers were once employed in researched facilities at the University of the Philippines in Los Banos, Laguna.

Health-Related Problems

Subsequent to pesticide exposure in the field, fifty-five (55) respondents or 62.5% reported ill effects of pesticides and/or chemicals. Complaints frequently mentioned include:

? Severe headache
? Dizziness
? Skin rashes
? Soggy eyes
? Motion sickness
? Numbness
? Muscle pain
? Trembling
? Vomiting
? Chest pain
? Cough
? Hyperacidity

In addition, fifty-eight (58) respondents or 65.9% claimed that they suffered serious illness in the course of their employment in IRRI.

Among the illnesses mentioned were the following:


Other Factors

Seventy-nine (79) or 89.8% of the respondents strongly stressed that they didn’t have any serious illness or health problem prior to their employment in IRRI. However, 71 respondents or 80.7% also admitted to smoking cigarettes and drinking liquor during their employment at IRRI.
Sixty-nine (69) respondents or 78.4% indicated that they were taking several medicines when they were still employed in IRRI while twenty (20) workers acknowledged having a child with congenital abnormalities.

Among the abnormalities mentioned were the following:


Among the pesticides used by IRRI that are known to be genotoxic, embryotoxic, or endocrine disruptor are the following:

1. ENDRIN(endrin)
2. THIODAN(endosulfan)
3. FURADAN(carbofuran)
4. 2-4 D (2-4 D)
5. DECIS(deltamethrin)
6. BENLATE(benomyl)
7. BRODAN(chlorpyrifos)
8. METHYL BROMIDE(methyl bromide)
9. ZINOGAS(zinc phosphide)
10. GRAMOXONE(paraquat)
11. SEVIN(carbaryl)
12. BRESTAN(triphenyltin)
13. MALATHION(malathion)


Being a well-known international agricultural research center, IRRI has always been perceived by governments and the general public as a responsible institution providing its workers the best conditions of work, compensation and benefits which supposedly even went beyond the minimum requirements set by national labor laws. Officials of IRRI have always claimed that they employed the best techniques and materials and that their workers were provided the best training and education on safety measures available at any given time. The results of this study, however, reveal otherwise.
While only 53% of the respondents were officially designated to work in the experimental farm, all of them, in fact, were at one time or another, been assigned to work in the experimental fields performing various tasks which directly exposed them to different kinds of pesticides. Seventy eight per cent (69) of the respondents actually used or applied pesticides despite the fact that only 6 (6.8%) were classified as pesticide applicators. Table 6 and Figure 6 indicates the nature of exposure of the IRRI workers to pesticides.
Contrary to the claims of IRRI officials, the former IRRI workers were not given adequate training and/or orientation with regards to safety precautions, particularly, with respect to pesticide use and exposure. A large percentage (43.2%) of the respondents indicated that they were not given any training at all. The situation was even worse with respect to training and/or orientation on pesticide use. An overwhelming majority (63.6% - 69.3%) of the respondents indicated that they did not receive training and/or orientation on the following topics (Table 2 & Fig.2):
• Effects of pesticides and precautionary measures
• Awareness and symptoms of chemical poisoning
• Usage of personal protective outfit
• Things to do in case of pesticide-related accident
• Safe storage of pesticides
• Safe disposal of pesticide container and
• Safe usage/application of pesticide

Furthermore, the results also show that safety gadgets such as mask, respirator, eye goggles, gloves, etc., were not adequately provided for by IRRI and when available, they were not used anyway most of the time (Table 9 and Fig.9). The former IRRI workers also indicated that the safety gadgets were made available only in the late 1980’s. The poor worker safety practices indicate the lack of training and inadequate safety procedures and equipment being provided to the workers during the period of their employment.
As may be expected from their exposure to pesticides, the majority (62.5%) of the respondents indicated various signs and symptoms that they frequently experienced during their work at IRRI (See Health-Related Problems). While a large percentage (45.5%) of the respondents also indicated that they were also exposed to pesticides during their previous jobs and in the household, these exposures were much less in number, amount, intrinsic hazards, and frequency compared to their exposure to pesticides at IRRI. It is also significant to note that 65.9% of the respondents revealed that they had suffered serious illnesses during the course of their employment at IRRI and that they did not experience such illnesses prior to their employment at IRRI. Moreover, the actual incidence of serious illnesses among the former IRRI workers is most likely greater than what has been captured by this study since the mortality cases were not covered and since long-term effects such as cancer and other debilitating illnesses11 have not been fully accounted for among those who are still living. It would take life-time monitoring to capture the real incidence of the long-term effects of their previous pesticide exposure at IRRI. Although the former IRRI workers could not attribute directly most of their illnesses to pesticide exposure, it is certain that exposure to various kinds of pesticides had something to do with the occurrence of many of these illnesses during their stay at IRRI. Considering the criteria for determining the association between exposure to pesticide and illness12, it can be reasonably argued that exposure to various pesticides largely account for the illnesses observed among the former IRRI workers. Previous studies done by IRRI scientists themselves and other related studies worldwide show that increased pesticide exposure correlates with increased incidence of various types of illnesses. Furthermore, available animal studies clearly demonstrate that the pesticides used at IRRI cause different organ system abnormalities including, among others, brain and neurologic disorders, immune system dysfunction, reproductive disorders, congenital abnormalities, liver and kidney diseases, blood disorders, and cancer12,14,15,16,17,18,19,20. There is also sufficient knowledge about the mechanism of toxicity of the pesticides used at IRRI and there is strong biological plausibility that the illnesses observed are the consequences of molecular events caused by exposure to such pesticides. The intrinsic hazard characteristics, the clear temporal relationship and empirical evidence, including testimonial and physical evidence, show that pesticide exposure is the most likely cause of the high occurrence of illnesses among the former IRRI workers. The presence of confounding variables such as intake of medications, genetic predisposition, dietary factors, and previous exposure to pesticides constitute a very small contribution to the overall risk to the occurrence the various illnesses observed. While smoking and the possible presence of other toxic substances may significantly contribute to the incidence of certain illnesses, the overall picture would still point to the exposure to pesticides used at IRRI because of the much greater strength of association of the illnesses with pesticide exposure compared with smoking and possible exposure to other toxic chemicals.
It is also significant to note that about 23% of the respondents revealed having children born with abnormalities during their stay at IRRI. While the presence of other factors that could possibly cause the same abnormalities cannot be excluded, exposure to pesticides known to be embryotoxic, genotoxic, or endocrine disruptor is the most likely factor that could explain the high occurrence of such child abnormalities12,18,20

For several years, IRRI used highly toxic pesticides such as ENDRIN, THIODAN, AZODRIN, FURADAN, GRAMOXONE, METHYL BROMIDE, ZINOGAS, SEVIN, BASUDIN AND BRESTAN and exposed its workers to the various hazards that these pesticides bring. ENDRIN, which is has been listed among the initial 12 POPs or persistent organic pollutants18 targeted for global elimination or phase out under the Stockholm Convention, was used by IRRI even at a time when its extremely toxic properties were already known and developed countries have already begun to disallow its use. Another extremely toxic pesticide, THIODAN, which is chemically related to ENDRIN and also a persistent organic pollutant, was also being used by IRRI well into the 1990’s when some countries have already banned or restricted its use and years after the manufacturer of the chemical has been found guilty of submitting fraudulent toxicologic data to regulatory authorities. Similarly, AZODRIN, FURADAN, GRAMOXONE, ZINOGAS and METHYL BROMIDE, all Class I pesticides, were being used by IRRI even when it was obvious that conditions of use in the country do not allow any “safe use”. While IRRI would declare later that they no longer use Class I pesticides in their research, they never acknowledged their mistake in using these kinds of pesticides for a long time during the so-called Green Revolution era. More significantly, they never acknowledged their responsibility in causing adverse health effects to the workers that they had deliberately exposed to such highly toxic pesticides.
Despite its claim that it has been using the best available practices, IRRI has been using pesticides, such as glyphosate and butachlor, which have undergone very limited toxicologic screening tests and whose toxicologic data have almost exclusively been generated by the manufacturer itself (which explains the fact that the reports of clinical toxicity could not easily be extrapolated from the seemingly innocuous laboratory toxicologic data produced by the company). Worse, IRRI had been using a pesticide (butachlor) which was not registered for use in its country of origin (US).


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Pesticide Action Network Asia Pacific (PANAP), Institute for Occupational Health, Safety
and Development (IOHSAD), Brotherhood of IRRI Support Services Group (BISSIG),
Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (Peasant Movement of the Philippines), Kilusang Mayo Uno (May 1st Movement)

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