Time to phase out paraquat – Syngenta’s controversial pesticide

Zurich, 22.04.2002 - Workers and farmers regularly exposed to the pesticide paraquat, sold by Syngenta as Gramoxone, experience serious problems with their health. The high toxicity and lack of antidote leads to serious ill-health, and even death, from exposure. The Berne Declaration, Foro Emaus, Pesticide Action Network (PAN) Asia Pacific, PAN UK and the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation (SSNC) urge Syngent,a one day before the company´s AGM, to phase out the production and use of this hazardous pesticide.

A new report published by the five public interest groups shows alternative ways of controlling weeds. It is time to take global action and remove this old pesticide from the market and to allocate greatly increased resources to develop agricultural products that contribute to safe, ecological, sustainable agricultural production worldwide.

Leaking knapsacks, spray drift, and walking through sprayed vegetation lead to high exposure of sprayers and nearby workers and communities. “When I started handling the pesticides I experienced headaches. … When I used Gramoxone in particular my nose bled. I used to get severe pains on the left side of my stomach”. “After spraying, I had very bad headaches, felt nausea, giddiness and chest pains.” – Women sprayers on palm oil estates, Malaysia

The herbicide paraquat – a pesticide used to kill weeds – is sold by Syngenta in over 100 countries. It is extensively used on plantations of bananas, cocoa, coffee, cotton, palm oil, pineapple, rubber and sugar cane, as well as by small farmers. “Paraquat has been criticised for the adverse impacts on workers since the 1960s. The company’s new paraquat factory in China, and its intention to build up future growth on this old and hazardous pesticide, shows management has dismissed objections and concerns”, said Francois Meienberg of the Berne Declaration.

Interviews in March 2002 with women on Indonesian palm oil estates confirm the misery of routine pesticide exposure: blurred vision, breathing difficulties, skin damage and diarrhoea. They link these symptoms to paraquat, which they spray every second day. The product label indicates manufacture by PT Zeneca Agri Products Indonesia (now Syngenta). “Can Syngenta, the world’s biggest agrochemical company which prides itself on its principles and safety record, justify continued production of paraquat?” asked Barbara Dinham of PAN UK.

In Costa Rica sprayers on the banana plantations use the equivalent of 65 kg of pesticides per worker per year, and poisonings are rife. Between 1993 and 1996 a decrease of 40 per cent in paraquat injuries was observed following a ecolabelling programme: “the obvious reason is that less paraquat was used in 1996 than in 1993,” said Hernan Hermosilla Barrientos of Foro Emaus in Costa Rica.

Seven European and four developing countries have banned or severely restricted paraquat. In Sweden it has been prohibited since 1983, and the Swedish regulatory authority, KEMI, does not believe paraquat is suitable to use, even with the high standards in the country. “In addition to health hazards, regulators are concerned that the chemical is persistent and accumulates in soil. Studies indicate that paraquat has adverse effects on mammals, birds, fish and amphibians. In Sweden we believe that, for the environment and for health, the only safe use is no use,” said Göran Eklöf of SSNC.

Paraquat: Syngenta’s controversial herbicide. A report by John Madeley for Berne Declaration (Switzerland), Foro Emaus (Costa Rica), Pesticide Action Network (PAN) Asia Pacific (Malaysia), PAN UK (UK) and Swedish Society for Nature Conservation (Sweden), April 2002.

Poisoned and Silenced: A study of pesticide poisoning in the plantations. Tenaganita and PAN Asia and the Pacific, Malaysia, March 2002.

Paraquat in developing countries. Catharina Wesseling, Berna van Wendel de Joode, Clemens Ruepert, Catalina León1, Patricia Monge, Hernán Hermosilla, Timo Partanen, Central American Institute for Studies on Toxic Substances (IRET), Universidad Nacional, Heredia, Costa Rica, 2001. Int J Occup Health July 24, 2001.