Toxic exports: a Syngenta pesticide banned in Switzerland pollutes drinking water in Brazil

Documents obtained by Public Eye show that 37 tonnes of profenofos were exported from Switzerland to Brazil in 2018. This dangerous insecticide sold by Syngenta has been banned in Switzerland since 2005. In Brazil, profenofos is one of the substances most frequently detected in drinking water.

Switzerland exported 37 tonnes of profenofos to Brazil in 2018, according to official data from the Federal Office for the Environment (OFEV). Profenofos is an organophosphate insecticide which features on the list of substances banned in Switzerland due to their effects on health or the environment. It is extremely toxic to aquatic organisms, birds and bees. Profenofos can also affect brain development in humans and in particular in children. The effect is similar to that of Chlorpyrifos, which was recently banned in the European Union.

Although the name of the exporter has been redacted, it is indeed Syngenta, the world’s number one producer of pesticides whose sales totalled over USD 10 billion in 2018. It is the only company authorised to sell profenofos-based formulations in Brazil. The global profenofos market is an estimated USD 100 million. Approximately a quarter of those sales are made by the Swiss giant. Brazil is its biggest market. Our analysis of the Brazilian government’s water monitoring programme data for 2018 – 2019 showed that residues of profenofos are found in the water drunk by millions of people. In one out of every ten samples, the levels of profenofos detected are such that the water would be considered unfit for consumption in Switzerland. The states of São Paulo and Minas Gerais are the most heavily affected.

To date, the Swiss Federal Council refuses to prohibit the export of pesticides banned in Switzerland. It prefers measures which “infringe less on economic freedom”, as it explained in its response to a motion put forward in December 2017, which was closed with no follow up. It proposed amending an Ordinance in order to require prior approval of the importer country for the export of certain dangerous pesticides whose use is not authorised in Switzerland. Yet this measure is insufficient to guarantee the protection of people and the environment. In November, UN Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights Baskut Tuncak, called on the Swiss government to impose a ban on exports. He noted that states have a duty to prevent workers from being exposed to toxic substances, including pesticides, and that this duty extends ‘beyond borders’. The new parliament must act to put an end to these toxic exports.

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Géraldine Viret, Media Officer, +41 21 620 03 05,
Laurent Gaberell, Agriculture Expert, +41 21 620 06 15,