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
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 disease.
Agricultural workers are regularly exposed to this toxic substance
during handling and mixing, spraying and working in freshly sprayed
fields, the coalition says.
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 the forelegs.
"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 literature.
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 says.
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 of Justice.
"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 Reserved.