UN: Toxic Pesticide Stocks Need Fast Cleanup
By Cat Lazaroff
NEW YORK, New York, May 9, 2001 (ENS) - More than 500,000 tons of banned or expired pesticides are seriously threatening the health of millions of people and the environment in nearly all developing countries and countries in transition, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization warned in a new report issued today.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the figures are dramatically higher than previous estimates of around 100,000 tons.
"The lethal legacy of obsolete pesticides is alarming and urgent action is needed to clean up waste dumps," said Alemayehu Wodageneh, FAO expert on obsolete pesticides. "These 'forgotten' stocks are not only a hazard to people's health but they also contaminate natural resources like water and soil. Leaking pesticides can poison a very large area, making it unfit for crop production."
The waste sites contain some of the most dangerous insecticides in existence. They include aldrin, chlordane, DDT, dieldrin, endrin and heptachlor, which have been banned in most countries, along with organophosphates.
As pesticides deteriorate, they form byproducts, which may be more toxic than the original substance. In addition to pesticides, waste sites contain contaminated sprayers, empty containers and huge quantities of heavily polluted soil.
"Many stocks are situated near farmers' fields and wells in poor rural areas, as well as near houses, food stores and markets in urban areas," said Wodageneh. "The dumps are often abandoned, unmanaged and in very poor condition."
"Toxic substances are leaking into the ground," Wodageneh said. "Local people complain about headaches, nausea and coughs."
The pesticide waste has accumulated over more than 30 years, and products are being added all the time, according to the report. Obsolete pesticides have built up because they were not used or were not removed after being banned for health or environmental reasons.
AFRICAN VILLAGES PLAGUED BY OBSOLETE PESTICIDES
In many African countries, for example, dieldrin was used to control locust outbreaks until the late 1980s. After that time, it was decided not to use dieldrin any further, but existing stocks were not removed or used up.
The pesticides were brought here many years ago to control locusts and other pests, but they were never used.
In a one floor building and a dilapidated old barn nearby, around 5.5 tons of old pesticides, including DDT, malathion, pirimiphos-methyl, and fenitrothion, are stored in drums, boxes and bags. Some of the walls are cracked and toxic waste is leaking into the ground.
"These pesticides were brought to Arjo by the Ministry of Agriculture 20 years ago," said Gamada Binagde, head of the local Crop Protection Service. "We have identified eleven types of pesticides, but there are more and we don't know about the rest. It is dangerous to keep these pesticides in the center of the village. The people here can't wait for the stuff to be removed."
Much of the stock is more than 20 years old.
"Sites in Addis Ababa and in the village of Arjo have all the features that are common for obsolete pesticide stocks throughout Ethiopia," said Kevin Helps, FAO's project manager in Ethiopia. Problems include "poor storage facilities, very poor stock management, large amounts of pesticides that cannot be identified and leaking containers that contaminate groundwater and soil," added Helps.
The government of Ethiopia, assisted by FAO, has recently started to clean up toxic waste in Ethiopia, in the biggest project of its kind in sub-Saharan Africa. So far, for the disposal of 1,500 tons, or half of the total, the Netherlands has donated US$ 2.5 million, the United States has provided US$1 million and Sweden has pledged US$ 1.25 million.
MONEY SHORT FOR CLEANUP EFFORTS
But much more funding is needed, to address pesticide dumps in Africa and other countries.
"Large sums of money are involved in pesticide supply," the FAO report states. "As a result, a variety of hidden interests may play a role in decisions concerning pesticide procurement or donation. Often these interests are not strictly related to the best technical solution to pest problems."
The major pesticide producers are based in Europe, the United States, Japan, China and India.
In its new report, FAO calls upon chemical companies represented by the Global Crop Protection Federation to contribute now to the global disposal of pesticides produced by member companies.
Incineration is currently the only safe and environmentally acceptable method of disposal, and the industry has made a commitment to pay for the incineration of obsolete pesticides, the report says. But so far, companies have contributed little.
"Support from industry is crucial for the future disposal of pesticides because aid agencies of donor countries cannot cover all the costs without a substantial contribution from industry," Wodageneh said.
The report, which was co-published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), will be discussed at an international donor meeting in Rome from May 10-11.