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September 07, 2008

Safety concerns rise as Kenya's agro-chemicals usage increases

by Beatrice Nyamu

There is increasing use of chemicals and pesticides among Kenyan farmers now that the government is focused on boosting crop yields, yet there is lack of regulation and information to guide users.

In rural areas, the main concern is the indiscriminate use of pesticides. Certain pesticides used extensively in small-scale agricultural activity are so lethal that their use is either banned or is being phased-out in countries such as Canada. The best current example of this is methyl bromide.

Kenya’s importation and use of agrochemicals has more than tripled in the last decade, but majority of farmers do not handle the hazardous chemicals safely. Various health complaints among farmers in rural Kenya have been linked to unsafe application and storage patterns of the chemicals.

“Most farmers use chemicals extensively, but only 25 per cent take any safety precautions during application. Many farmers store the chemicals in their homes in unmarked containers, despite the dangers associated with long-term exposure,” says John Kinuthia, an agro-vet operator and a farmer in Kiambu.

Improper handling of fertilizers and pesticides continues to endanger the lives of Kenya’s small-scale farmers and their families according to a recent study. “Even the literate farmers find the wording on pesticide containers to be too technical. The unsafe storage methods, improper protective clothing and ambiguous instructions contribute to the growing number of Kenya’s accidental poisonings,” adds Kinuthia.

Hazardous substances (hazardous materials and wastes from their use) pose a danger to workers, the community and the environment. These dangers range from Ignitability; capable of burning or causing fire, corrosiveness; capable of eating away materials and destroying living tissue on contact explosiveness, can cause an explosion or suddenly release poisonous fumes when exposed to air, water, or other chemicals to toxicity; poisonous, either immediately (acutely toxic) or over a long period of time (chronically toxic).

At times the dangers of hazardous wastes are not readily apparent. Their damage is long-term. For instance, pesticides used to regulate plant and animal pests and unwanted weeds are often unpredictable. The chemical may remain in the crop, in the soil, drift to other areas, reach streams and water sources and thereby pose a threat to human beings and wildlife.

Some of the health effects to human attributable to hazardous substances include skin irritations, respiratory problems, poisoning, and in some cases cancer. Poisoning by chemicals can occur in several ways. The most frequent way is absorbing through the lungs by breathing in gases, vapours or airborne particles. Liquids can be absorbed through skin. Though least frequent, ingestion of chemicals through eating or drinking is more commonly found where personal hygiene is poor or where food is stored together with chemicals. Transmission of toxic chemicals from the pregnant women to the foetus through the placenta is also known.

The negative impacts of the improper handling of hazardous substances manifest themselves in other ways as well, the most striking example being the use of chemicals such as cyanide by poor people as a means of committing suicide. In addition to their impacts on workers, hazardous substances can contaminate environment; soil and groundwater, pollute air, destroy plants, vegetation and other forms of greenery, and kill or negatively affect wildlife.

Up until the time that hazardous substances enter into the world of the informal sector, there are perhaps reasonable controls in place to ensure their safe use. However, regulation and enforcement of chemical use is non-existent in the informal sector. Governments in the developing world do not have the resources to enforce standards.

Chemical manufacturers, importers and suppliers are responsible for providing information on chemicals in the form of safety data sheets. “Unfortunately, by the time chemicals reach the farmer or user, the data sheets are long gone as hazardous substances are removed from their original container and resold in smaller quantities to a number of buyers,” Kinuthia says.

It is not uncommon, for example, to be able to buy a product as toxic as DDT or cyanide in small quantities at a local market and even if the buyer were to purchase the hazardous product in its original package, he/she may not be able to read the instructions due to the technical terms used. Rarely are entrepreneurs or their workers trained or equipped to safely handle these products.

In the absence of a regulatory framework and practical guidance, hazardous substances are then typically used in unsafe worksites that are often makeshift, disorderly, crowded, and suffering from poor lighting, noise, extreme temperatures, dust and fumes, and poor ventilation. These conditions combined with hazardous substances are a perfect opportunity for disaster.

The use of the home as a base for business has greatly assisted many in the informal sector to develop viable economic activity. However, in some cases health, safety and environmental conditions are not conducive. This includes working in poorly-lit spaces, exposure to smoke, fire, burning liquids, excessive noise and the indiscriminate use of chemicals.

One of the greatest concerns is the safety of children in this environment. Even in the absence of reliable statistics, it is generally agreed that the incidence of chemical poisoning is highest in agriculture, meaning the rural entrepreneur is typically working in the most hazardous location context.

Pesticide (insecticide, herbicide, fungicide, rodenticide, etc.) use is far more prevalent than any other hazardous substance rural or urban. Pesticides are not the only hazardous substances used in farming activities. Fertilizers, equipment use and repair, animal confinement and slaughter, and stored products all present dangers related to hazardous substances.

Non-farm activities such as cotton ginning also make use of hazardous substances.Basically people are exposed to chemicals in three ways: by skin contact, by breathing and by swallowing. Because one cannot see, feel, taste, or smell a substance does not mean it is harmless. When handled without protection, some chemicals can cause skin rashes or burns or else can be absorbed through the skin into the bloodstream. Breathing dusts, fumes and vapours into the lungs may cause skin irritations, allergies, or even lung disease.

Some chemicals form new and possibly more dangerous chemicals when they are processed by the lungs or intestines. The concern is not so much with the chemicals, but rather with how they are handled, stored, transported and used. Each year there are hundreds of thousands of cases of mishaps related to chemical use in the workplace resulting in injury and death. The toll on workers, production, property and the natural environment has now reached staggering proportions. With the absence of enforcement of health and safety standards, and dangerous working conditions, it is safe to assume that the agricultural sector presents its share of dangers.

The government should protect the farmers by promoting safe procedures for handling and storing agrochemicals. These may include supplying farm workers with soap and water after spraying, and notifying the public about the dangers of using sprayers for purposes other than their intended chemical use. The manufacturers should use straightforward warning labels which incorporate local names for the chemicals.

Africa Science News Service

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