Severe health effects of pesticides on workers in oil palm plantations
Pesticides negatively impact the health
and lives of millions of agricultural pesticide users, their communities
and consumers worldwide –they also cause great damage to biodiversity
and the environment. The pesticides used in oil palm plantations
have adverse impacts on human health and the environment. Agricultural
workers in oil palm plantations are heavily exposed to pesticides
and suffer a range of dangerous acute and chronic health effects,
though many remain tragically ignorant of the causes.
Tenaganita and PAN AP have carried out
numerous surveys in Malaysian oil palm plantations during the
last few years which have revealed horrendous working conditions.
These include workers spraying pesticides without any knowledge
of their hazards; not being provided with protective clothing;
and even cases where the labels are removed from the pesticide
bottles before being given to workers so that they are unable
to identify the pesticide used.
Workers complaining about pesticide
poisoning are treated callously by the medical personnel and often
prescribed paracetemol for pain and skin creams for skin irritation.
Workers in oil palm plantations, are reluctant to report pesticide
poisoning for fear of losing their jobs or retaliation, or because
they cannot afford the time off or medical costs. The impacts
of pesticides compromise people’s ability to work, earn a living,
and conduct community and livelihood functions.
Long term chronic impacts (including
systemic damage and diseases, cancer, reproductive health problems
and hormonal disruption) seriously threaten rural communities’
long term survival. Endocrine disruption can affect particularly
unborn babies —disturbing growth and formation, causing systemic
and functional deficiencies like lowered IQ levels, susceptibility
to disease, behavioural problems, and effects on future fertility.
These impacts on children seriously threaten the future of whole
communities, and could mire communities in more social and economic
disintegration, greater poverty and suffering.
Women are particularly susceptible due
to physiological characteristics and socio-cultural and economic
circumstances as they are often the poorest of the poor. Impacts
on women’s health (and children) are critical as the pesticides
women workers spray are potentially toxic to the foetus. Women
can be exposed even if they do not directly apply the pesticides,
and yet are less likely to receive training to reduce risks. Such
is the case with the Glufosinate ammonium, a groundwater contaminant
that has toxicity to humans, including carcinogenicity, reproductive
and developmental toxicity, neurotoxicity, and acute toxicity.
Some of the pesticides used in oil palm
plantations may produce chronic illness and death in humans --like
endosulfan, an endocrine disrupting chemical insecticide that
acts primarily on the nervous system known to interfere with hormonal
mechanisms at very low concentrations; 2,4-D dimethylamine and
diuron, that are potential carcinogens; glyphosate, cypermethrin
and carbofuran, maneb, that are possible endocrine disrupting
Paraquat is a highly hazardous pesticide
that is known to cause the highest number of poisoning of agricultural
workers in the oil palm plantations in Malaysia. The Malaysian
government announced a ban on paraquat but the ban has not been
implemented due to the pressure from the industry. The symptoms
of paraquat poisoning are nosebleeds, tearing of the eyes, contact
dermatitis, skin irritation and sores, nail discolouration, dropping
of the nails, and abdominal ulcerations. Damage to the lungs,
for example, may not be evident until several days after absorption.
There is no antidote against paraquat poisoning. The outcome can
be fatal and in these cases death results from respiratory failure.
In 1994, the Danish government had imposed bans and severe restrictions
on 7 pesticides -including paraquat- it considered a threat to
health, the environment or both. The Danish decision to ban paraquat,
enacted in 1995, was based on its persistence, and its toxicity
to non-target organisms.
However, as the Pesticide Action Network’s
regional office for Asia and the Pacific (PAN AP) has already
expressed, “in Malaysia the industries’ profits override the health
considerations of the people.”
By Sarojeni V. Rengam, PAN Asia and
the Pacific, E- mail: