Outcry at refusal to ban toxic chemicals

Outcry at refusal to ban toxic chemicals

Vegetable samples with pesticide residue are on display at an event held to promote food safety in November 2017. (Bangkok Post file photo)
Vegetable samples with pesticide residue are on display at an event held to promote food safety in November 2017. (Bangkok Post file photo)

Consumer groups have vowed to ramp up their campaign to force the national committee on hazardous substances to ban three hazardous farm chemicals immediately, not in another two years.

Comprising 686 civic groups, they have come together under the banner of the Thai Pesticides Alert Network (Thai-PAN). The group also comprises doctors from the Public Health Ministry and state hospitals as well as academics who are calling for a complete ban on paraquat, glyphosate and chlorpyrifos.

The network yesterday released a statement lambasting five agricultural officials, who sit on the 29-member committee, for ignoring warnings from scholars and experts about the dangers of these chemicals, especially paraquat, which continue to harm the lives of farmers, consumers and newborn babies every year.

The criticism is a response to the decision that the national committee made on Thursday rejecting rejecting calls from consumers groups, academics and official agencies, including the Ministry of Public Health, to ban the three pesticides. However, the national committee could only “promise” to put strict control on their uses until they are replaced by alternative methods, which will “hopefully” lead to their complete ban in the next two years.

The majority of committee members who voted against the ban must take responsibility for a resolution that “favours pesticide companies”, the network said in its statement, raising doubts over some members’ vested interests in the companies.

The group urged the public to share the statement and join the campaign.

“We believe in the power of people to bring about change in the future,” the network said. The statement was posted on Thai-PAN’s Facebook page yesterday, prompting people to criticise the vote on social media.

Facebook users called for the release of names of the committee members who voted against the ban.

The network vowed to spearhead the move by asking the Office of the Ombudsman to petition the National Counter Corruption Commission to look for alleged irregularities behind the decision. The network will also take the issue to the Administrative Court.

The ombudsmen, together with state and academic powerhouses like the Public Health Ministry, the National Human Rights Commission and the Medical Council of Thailand, all support a complete ban.

Abour 50 countries have banned paraquat and limited use of glyphosate and chlorpyrifos. China, a major paraquat exporter, has announced it will ban its use and export by 2020.

Thiravat Hemachudha, of Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Medicine, said that studies have found paraquat residuals in the bodies of farmers and their family members.

One such study by Pornpimol Kongthip, a researcher at the Faculty of Public Health, Mahidol University several years ago, showed that paraquat can be transferred from mother to foetus in the womb. In her research, 53 toddlers in Amnat Charoen, Kanchanaburi and Nakhon Sawan provinces were found to have paraquat contamination.

But despite the risk, the government does not seriously pay heed to the concerns, Mr Thiravat said.

Public Health Minister Piyasakol Sakolsatayadorn said yesterday. “We have to respect the rules they [authorities] set up …, but we’ll do what we’re authorised to do.”

The fierce opposition yesterday prompted Agriculture and Cooperatives Minister Grisada Boonrach to send an urgent message to senior officials asking them to “build public confidence” that the ministry is adamant about imposing a ban in with the next two years. The decision by the National Committee on Hazardous Substances not to ban paraquat over the next two years is shameful and shows a lack of responsibility. The committee on Thursday voted 16:5 in favour of continuing to allow the use of the chemical, which is prohibited in 53 countries due to its high toxicity. Five members abstained.

The voting was carried out in secret, but it is understood that those representing the Agriculture and Cooperatives Ministry gave a “yes” vote to the popular herbicide.

The decision by the committee, dominated largely by officials from the ministry who are alleged to have connections with farm chemical giants, followed the same lines as previous statements made about the herbicide.

This is another example that shows the committee cares neither about the health of the people nor the environment and just wants to please the agro-giants. Thailand imported about 44,501 tonnes of paraquat last year compared with 31,525 tonnes in 2016.

In April last year, when the terms for the import of paraquat were due to expire, the committee voted for an extension. At that time, the panel insisted it still had “no knowledge how the chemical causes impacts on health and the environment”.

In May, the committee claimed, amid growing concern about the impact of the pesticide, that a ban was not possible as there were no other chemicals in the market that “work as effectively as paraquat”. The Agriculture and Cooperatives Ministry pledged to train farmers how to use the herbicide “properly” to minimise any negative impacts on the health of users and consumers.

The mere fact that paraquat use requires special training is worrying. For one thing, it is questionable whether the ministry can give training to all users. It also implies that the chemical is highly hazardous while improper or excessive use of it can adversely affect users’ health.

Although paraquat is only allowed to be used in the growing of six crops, including corn, palm and rubber, it is likely, due to weak law enforcement, that the herbicide is widely used illegally with other crops. Research by Naresuan University found paraquat residue on many vegetables not on the list.

The Agriculture Ministry is at odds with the Health Ministry, which has a clear stance that the herbicide must be banned. In April 2018, a health reform committee under the ministry issued a resolution to ban the import of paraquat and chlorpyrifos by the end of last year and to prohibit all use by Dec 1 this year.

The Public Health Ministry has conducted a number of research studies, which show the impact of the herbicide on people’s health. More importantly, it found that paraquat residues had entered the food chain. These results were submitted to the National Committee on Hazardous Substances.

But the pro-paraquat officials refused to listen. They insist the ban will cause problems for many farmers who depend on it. Over the past few months, groups of farmers have come out to petition against the ban.

Corn farmers, in particular, object to a ban, which they claim will lower their yields. They also insist the herbicide has reduced their labour costs, which means lower production costs overall.

One corn farmer dismissed concerns over the chemical, saying: “Exported corn has never been returned because of the herbicide.”

But they, the farmers and the officials should know that nature has its limits and the environmental clock is ticking. If we wait until the produce is returned it will be too late, and the damage will be too great to control.

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