BRUSSELS, Belgium, March 2, 2004 (ENS):
The herbicide paraquat must not be permitted for agricultural
use in Europe, a coalition of international trade union
organizations and environmental NGOs has decided. The
coalition Monday filed a lawsuit with the European Court
of First Instance challenging the European Commission's
decision last December to grant approval for the herbicide
across the European Union.
The coalition contends that the Commission decision
ignored readily available scientific evidence on the
toxic effects of paraquat on humans and the environment,
and that the approval violates the European Convention
for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms,
the European Union Treaty - in particular the precautionary
principle - and secondary EU law.
Agricultural workers' unions and environmental groups
have campaigned for years to ban the use of paraquat,
which is responsible for a substantial number of the
tens of thousands of annual pesticide related deaths.
Once absorbed through the skin or lungs or orally ingested,
its effects are irreversible. There is no known antidote
to paraquat poisoning. A potentially fatal link has
been documented between paraquat exposure and Parkinson's
Agricultural workers are regularly exposed to this
toxic substance during handling and mixing, spraying
and working in freshly sprayed fields, the coalition
But Syngenta, the manufacturer of Gramoxone®, which
contains paraquat as the active ingredient, maintains
that when the product is diluted and sprayed, the principal
route of occupational exposure is via the skin, especially
the hands but also, during handheld application, to
"Paraquat is poorly absorbed through human skin
and any small amounts that may be absorbed in normal
occupational use are well below those needed to induce
toxic effects in the lung, the most sensitive target
organ for paraquat. If this does occur, these extremely
small amounts are quickly excreted in the urine,"
Syngenta says. "Inhalation exposure is negligible
as paraquat has a very low vapor pressure and spray
droplet sizes are far too large to enter the lung."
The coalition contends that paraquat is persistent and
accumulates in the soil with repeated applications.
This long term contamination and unacceptable risks
to wildlife populations are well documented in the scientific
Their lawsuit argues that all of this was ignored by
the Commission, whose decision to authorize paraquat
came in response to an unprecedented lobbying effort
by Syngenta and the wider pesticides lobby in the main
EU member states.
Syngenta takes issue with the coalition's characterization
of paraquat. The company says Gramoxone "has been
widely used in over 120 countries throughout the world
and over a period of 40 years relatively few problems
have been reported from occupational exposure."
When manufacturer's instructions have been followed,
even allowing for some minor predictable deviations,
there have been no substantiated cases of serious health
effects having resulted from systemic absorption of
paraquat, associated with occupational use, Syngenta
Instead, the company blames any health problems on
"incorrect spraying practices" that can occasionally
result in problems of skin irritation, nail damage or
nose bleeding, mainly in handheld applications. Such
irritation or damage is "reversible when exposure
to paraquat is stopped," the company says.
But the coalition says the Commission made its decision
to permit use of paraquat in the face of opposition
from environmental, public health and trade union organizations
whose members are in the front line of exposure.
It was opposed by EU member states where paraquat had
previously been banned - Austria, Denmark, Finland and
Sweden. The government of Sweden has launched an independent
challenge to the approval decision in the European Court
"Paraquat must be banned to protect the environment
and human health," said John Hontelez, secretary
general of the European Environmental Bureau (EEB),
a coalition of 143 member organizations in 31 countries.
"The European Commission has ignored publicly
available scientific evidence of the hazards associated
with paraquat and pushed through its decision behind
the closed doors of the Member States' Committee meetings,"
said Hontelez. "This can only lead to a loss of
public confidence in how pesticides are approved in
the EU. That is why this lawsuit is necessary."
"Paraquat has no place in an agriculture which
is socially and environmentally sustainable," said
Ron Oswald, general secretary of the International Union
of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering,
Tobacco and Allied Workers' Associations.
"EU approval not only places European agricultural
workers at greater risk, forcing paraquat on to the
market in countries where unions have successfully fought
to have it banned," said Oswald, "it encourages
its further use in developing countries, despite the
known dangers paraquat poses to humans and the environment.
The European Union must assume global responsibility
for its decisions in this area, he said.
The consequences of the EU paraquat approval are already
being felt. Syngenta made use of the EU decision to
mount a public relations and lobbying campaign in Malaysia
to reverse that country's phased ban on paraquat.
The paraquat lobby is also active in Central America,
where paraquat use has been criticized.
Other members of the coalition are - IUF's European
regional organization, the Pesticides Action Network
Europe, the Dutch Society for Nature and Environment,
and the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation.
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2004. All Rights