Cambodian farmers are exposed to hazardous pesticides and many show symptoms of acute pesticide poisoning due to a lack of personal protection, according to a new study.
The study, released this month in the Journal of Toxicology, recommends enforcing government control on the banned pesticides, which are currently widely available and sold without safety instructions.
Researchers interviewed 89 farmers who grew water spinach, also called morning glory, in Boeung Cheung Ek lake, located on Phnom Penh’s southern outskirts in Dangkao district.
It found 88 percent of the farmers had experienced symptoms of acute poisoning related to spraying pesticide, such as blurred vision, muscle cramps, chest pains and shortness of breath.
Although most of the farmers were aware of the detrimental health effects of pesticides, only half used a mask, 18 percent used gloves and 3 percent used boots during spraying activities, the Danish researchers wrote.
They noted that the masks being used “were disposable cotton masks not manufactured for pesticide spraying and the level of protection from such masks is unknown.”
The study found that half of the farmers used pesticides that are classified by the World Health Organization as moderately to extremely hazardous, most of which are banned in Cambodia.
These chemicals are however, widely available due to illegal imports from Vietnam and Thailand, and the pesticide containers only carry labels and safety instructions in foreign languages, the study said. This situation, it said, pointed to “a lack of enforcement power by the Cambodian government or unwillingness to enforce current laws.”
“A first priority must be to effectively phase out the most hazardous pesticides from the market, control pesticide imports and sales, and educate farmers in the proper use of pesticides,” researchers recommended.
Keam Makarady, director of the Cambodian Center for Study and Development in Agriculture’s environment and health program, said Wednesday that farmers also needed education on pesticide use and access to suitable protective equipment.
Previous studies by CEDAC found a similar frequency of pesticide poisoning symptoms among Cambodian farmers. These studies have warned this type of poisoning can lead to skin disorders, neurological effects, and in the long term, to cancer, reproductive problems and birth defects.
Mr Makarady said farmers often start experiencing the first pesticide-related health problems, such as skin disorders, after about three years of unprotected pesticide use, which then forces them to stop working with chemicals. Then, he said, “they have to ask their relatives, like their sons, or somebody else to spray the pesticides.”
Mr Makarady said acute pesticide poisoning was most common among Cambodian vegetable producers and dry season rice farmers-the latter group makes up around 20 percent of all farmers-as their crops suffer from more pests than wet season rice.
It is not unusual for consumers to also be exposed to the hazardous chemicals when eating fresh vegetables, he said.
“Consumers in Phnom Penh have problems like this because vegetable production is [located] around Phnom Penh,” he said, adding that consumers have reported reactions such as vomiting or diarrhea.
Preab Visarto, acting director of the Ministry of Agriculture’s department of plant protection, acknowledged that the trade and illegal import of banned pesticides in Cambodia was “a big problem.”
Mr Visarto said the ministry was drafting a new law that would require pesticide companies to register their products at the ministry for prior approval, while under this law officials could also confiscate illegal products and punish traders.
“This law is a priority law at the Agriculture Ministry,” he said. “We are working hard on this problem. We see it affects health, environment and fish.”
He said, however, that it was unclear when the ministry would complete the drafting process.
Until that time, Mr Visarto said, existing government controls would remain insufficient to control the illicit pesticide trade. “The [existing] directive or sub-decree is not strong enough,” he said.