Poor children vulnerable to pesticide poisoning

GENEVA, Switzerland, September 28, 2004 (ENS): Children are facing higher risks from pesticides than adults and need greater protection against these chemicals, particularly in developing countries, three United Nations agencies urge in a new report presented to ministers and senior officials from 130 governments on Friday in Geneva.

As many as five million cases of pesticide poisoning occur each year worldwide. The number of children exposed is unknown, but the report describes the heightened vulnerability of children whose exposure may occur in the womb, from their food and water, or from exposure to soil, dust and contaminated objects they encounter in play.

"Most of the poisonings take place in rural areas of developing countries, where safeguards typically are inadequate or lacking altogether," says the report, "Child Pesticide Poisoning: Information for Advocacy and Action."

The problem disproportionately affects the developing world, the report said. Developing countries use 25 percent of the world's production of pesticides, yet they account for 99 percent of deaths caused by these toxics.

The agencies that compiled the report - the World Health Organization, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) - recommend reducing and eliminating possible exposures, keeping pesticides better secured and providing health care training to recognize cases of poisoning.

The report was issued as governments met in Geneva for the first ministerial conference of the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade. The United States is a signatory to that agreement but has not yet ratified the convention.

“Technical assistance for developing countries will be vital for the Convention’s long-term success,” said UNEP Executive Director Klaus Töpfer. “Both national and international resources will be needed to maintain momentum and ensure that the Rotterdam Convention achieves a universal membership.”

Pesticide poisoning can occur via breathing, drinking or eating, or through the skin or mucous membranes. The symptoms resulting from acute poisoning may range from fatigue, dizziness, nausea and vomiting, to respiratory and neurological effects that may be life-threatening.

Chronic, and even low-level exposure to pesticides has been linked to cancer, birth defects, and damage the nervous and the functioning of the endocrine system.

Poverty is a contributing factor, the UN agencies report. In poor families, children often help out on family farms where pesticides are used. Pesticide users, including teenagers, may lack access to protective equipment such as gloves and masks, and receive no training. As a result, pesticides may be used by young workers carelessly, and without protection.

In many developing countries, the marketing and advertisement of pesticides is often uncontrolled or illicit, the report states. Misbranded or unlabeled formulations, including ready-made solutions in soft drink bottles and other unlabelled liquid containers, are sold at open stands. Low retail prices promote pesticide use but weak legislation and inadequate law enforcement fail to control risks.

The Rotterdam Convention facilitates information exchange on a broad range of potentially hazardous chemicals and gives importing countries the power to decide whether or not they want to receive future imports of certain chemicals.

The first conference of the Convention’s member states since the agreement entered into force on February 24 closed on Friday with agreement to add 14 new hazardous chemicals and pesticides to an initial watch list of 27 substances.

“By increasing the number of hazardous chemicals and pesticides that require prior informed consent before being exported by almost 50 percent, governments have given the Rotterdam Convention an enthusiastic vote of confidence,” said FAO Assistant Director-General Louise Fresco.

More chemicals will be added to the Prior Informed Consent list in the future. A Chemical Review Committee established at the conference will assess future proposals to add new chemicals and pesticides to the list.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2004. All Rights Reserved.

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