By Robert Carmichael
Jan 31, 2011
Phnom Penh - In 2001, Cambodia introduced a law requiring that all pesticides carry labels in Khmer, the local language.
The logic was simple enough: All pesticides were imported and very few farmers could read the instructions. That posed a significant public health risk.
But 10 years on the law is widely ignored, says agronomist and pesticides expert Keam Makarady: Just 30 of more than 800 pesticides carry instructions in Khmer.
'So it is difficult for farmers to know what kind of pesticides they use, and also the direction for (their) safe use,' he says.
The result, as a Danish study has found, is that farmers are being poisoned at work.
The study, which was published in January in the Journal of Toxicology, looked at a group of 89 vegetable farmers in Cambodia.
Researchers found half of the pesticides used were ranked by the World Health Organization as Class I or II - the least toxic of which is considered moderately hazardous.
And because farmers lacked adequate personal protection, nearly 90 per cent had experienced symptoms of acute pesticide poisoning.
Many of the pesticides the team encountered were not only hazardous but also either banned or restricted in Cambodia, says Hanne Klith Jensen, the report's lead researcher and an environmental chemist at the University of Copenhagen.
She acknowledges that the sample group was small, but says the finding was nonetheless significant.
'Even if our study is limited to conclusions on pesticide use in a very specific type of vegetable growing system, it tells us banned pesticides are still available,' she says.
Worse still, those banned pesticides are popular with farmers who see only the benefit of their relative low cost and are unaware of the health risks, she says.
Earlier studies have found similar results, including one by CEDAC, a respected local agricultural organization which agronomist Keam Makarady co-founded in 1997.
Keam Makarady says 80 per cent of farmers attending CEDAC's courses use pesticides that are ranked as Class Ia or Ib, categorized by the WHO as extremely or highly hazardous, respectively.
'But (after training) it's only 10 per cent that use extremely hazardous pesticides, so it is an improvement,' he says. Most then choose to use less dangerous pesticides.
CEDAC has managed to reach just 5 per cent of the country's farmers. So there is some way to go, given that 80 per cent of Cambodians live in the countryside and most work the land to earn a meagre living.
Srey Kuot is one of them. The 22-year-old contract farmer grows vegetables on a small plot on the outskirts of Phnom Penh on the banks of the Tonle Sap river.
She admits she has no idea what pesticides she uses on her crops of coriander, cabbage and spinach. Like most farmers she mixes different pesticides to create a stronger cocktail.
And like most of her peers she knows pesticides are harmful. Although she cannot read the labels, which are written in Thai or Vietnamese, she does cover up when spraying, using long trousers, a mask, a long-sleeved shirt and boots.
But her sister is less careful.
'Every time she sprays without wearing the proper clothes, she gets dizzy and vomits,' Srey Kuot says. 'And if I sit downwind when she is spraying, then I get dizzy and want to vomit immediately.'
Dizziness and nausea are two common signs of pesticide poisoning, as are chest pains, headaches and blurred vision. The long-term effects can be fatal.
The Danish study is the latest to find that Cambodia has failed to enforce its laws on banned and restricted pesticides. The government says a new law is being drafted to tackle the problem.
Another of the Danish researchers, Professor Flemming Konradsen, who heads the Copenhagen School of Global Health, recommends moves to end the import and sale of the worst pesticides.
That would require national and even regional collaboration to curb the cross-border trade of these 'very toxic' products.
'Politically the move should be to remove the most toxic pesticides from the market fast and completely,' he says, adding that the study's findings are common to other low-income countries.
Meanwhile the best option - for those who can afford it - is to buy organic, which is what CEDAC's Keam Makarady does.
But that is no solution for most Cambodians. Organic fruit and vegetables are too expensive to grow or to buy for farmers and consumers, often the same people in the impoverished country. So for now most will continue to pay the price in other ways.