Herbicide paraquat lands in European court

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 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.


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