13 April 2015
Highly Hazardous Pesticides: Finding Alternatives and Reducing Risk by 2020
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Participants at the second meeting of the SAICM Open-ended Working Group requested the FAO, UNEP and WHO to develop a proposal on Highly Hazardous Pesticides, with multi-stakeholder input.

Pesticides are inherently hazardous, and among them, a relatively small number of Highly Hazardous Pesticides (HHPs) cause disproportionate harm to health and the environment, particularly in developing countries. The Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) community has expressed a strong and clear desire to act on HHPs. Participants at the second meeting of the SAICM Open-ended Working Group in December 2014 requested the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and World Health Organization (WHO) to develop a proposal on HHPs, with multi-stakeholder input, and to present it to the Fourth International Conference on Chemicals Management (ICCM 4) later this year, taking into account identified needs and existing initiatives.

Pesticides play an important role in agriculture and public health by controlling damaging and unwanted organisms, and their use is expanding globally. All pesticides are toxic to some degree, but some are significantly more harmful than others. For example, of the 900+ active ingredients currently in use globally, 86 are classified by the WHO as being Extremely Hazardous (Class 1a) or Highly Hazardous (Class 1b). Add pesticides listed under the Rotterdam Convention on Prior Informed Consent, the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), and the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, and there are approximately 120 pesticides that are widely agreed to be highly hazardous to human health and the environment.

Pesticide users, including farmers, farm workers and public health workers, are often ignorant of possible adverse health and environmental impacts from pesticides. This ignorance commonly results in inadequate protection of pesticide users, other people who may be exposed inadvertently to the pesticides, and the environment. People who are poisoned by pesticides are often in remote rural areas where access to medical care is limited. As a result, pesticide poisonings are commonly unreported and victims may not seek medical attention. In addition, medical practitioners often cannot diagnose pesticide poisoning cases, nor treat them adequately. Most developing countries do not have poison centers that offer advice on pesticide poisoning diagnosis and treatment.

Even where users know that a certain pesticide causes illness or environmental damage, they frequently believe there are no alternatives. But in fact, there are almost always alternatives available. These may be biological controls, cultural methods, mechanical traps or barriers, or low-risk pesticides. In the rare cases where no alternative is available to a HHP, it is always possible to reduce risks through better application and protective equipment, limiting access to specialist pesticide applicators, or changing a pesticide formulation to make it less dangerous.

In the belief that risks from HHPs can be reduced, and hopefully ultimately eliminated, without undermining farmers’ capacity to produce enough safe food, the FAO Pest and Pesticide Management Programme has adopted the byline “More food, less risk,” and is working to help countries realize this.

Why are HHPs a Problem and For Whom?

Pesticides are indiscriminately toxic and will affect any organism exposed to them. For example, pesticides that act on the nervous system of insects (such as organophosphates and carbamates) will also affect the nervous system of exposed humans, livestock and wildlife; a pesticide designed to prevent chitin formation in insects will have the same action on chitin producers in aquatic environments, such as shrimp. Since most pesticides are sprayed in an open environment, it is impossible to target them precisely at pests without exposing other organisms.

While relatively few pesticides may be defined as Highly Hazardous, the harm they cause to health and the environment can be very significant. An estimate puts the number of Disability-Adjusted Life Years (DALYs[1]) caused by pesticides annually at nearly 7.5 million, with 99% of poisoning cases occurring in developing countries.[2] FAO has surveyed national actions relating to pesticides that would be defined as HHPs under the FAO/WHO criteria, and found that among a sample of 30 African, Asian and Caribbean countries, all had banned all POPs pesticides, 11 countries had taken regulatory action to ban or restrict pesticides listed in Annex III of the Rotterdam Convention, and 26 countries had taken regulatory action against other pesticides. The 2012 UNEP report on the Costs of Inaction on the Sound Management of Chemicals estimates that pesticide use in Sub-Saharan Africa will lead to US$97 billion in cumulative health costs over the period 2005-2020. The impacts on health and environment from pesticides are clearly enormous, and the greatest burden is borne by the developing world.

Addressing the problem of HHPs: Empowering Regulators

The FAO/WHO International Code of Conduct on Pesticide Management, released in 2014, is a framework that guides governments and other relevant stakeholders in the sound management of pesticides throughout their life cycle. It is approved by both FAO and WHO, and endorsed by industry and NGOs. The 2014 revised Code includes for the first time a definition of HHPs, which is:

pesticides that are acknowledged to present particularly high levels of acute or chronic hazards to health or environment according to internationally accepted classification systems such as WHO or GHS or their listing in relevant binding international agreements or conventions. In addition, pesticides that appear to cause severe or irreversible harm to health or the environment under conditions of use in a country may be considered to be and treated as highly hazardous.

The FAO and WHO expert panels on pesticide management have defined criteria for HHPs, and consider the empowerment of pesticide regulators in developing countries to be the most effective way to reduce risks from HHPs in a sustainable manner.

Pesticide regulators take into account the conditions of sale, storage, use and disposal of pesticides in their country. They also know, often through anecdotal evidence, which pesticides are causing problems in their national context. In some cases, regulators may find problems with pesticides which are not listed by any of the instruments in the HHP criteria. In these cases, the final criterion indicates that regulators can decide a pesticide is an HHP if it shows a high incidence of severe or irreversible adverse effects on human health or the environment.

FAO is supporting several countries in reviewing their pesticide registers, with the aim of identifying HHPs in use and finding ways of reducing risk, either by identifying alternatives or by mitigating risks from HHPs whose use must continue. Many other actors including governments, intergovernmental organizations, NGOs and the private sector are working to identify and reduce risks from HHPs. Their actions include regulation, advice, advocacy and technical measures.

Because pesticides are so widely used, by so many people, and there are so many different pesticides with a wide range of toxic modes of action, and the most vulnerable people are often those who lack access to medical facilities, it is vital that the effort to reduce risks from HHPs is collaborative and inclusive. We need to build on work that is already in place, and identify gaps that can be filled. The interest among the SAICM community in HHPs is welcome and timely. As a community, it is possible to significantly reduce risks from HHPs by 2020.

[1]: DALYs is a weighted measure of years of life lost due to premature death, and years lived with disability.

[2]: Prüss-Ustün et al, Knowns and unknowns on burden of disease due to chemicals: a systematic review, Environmental Health 2011, 10:9

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