Monday, January 11, 2010
Speech by Dr Johan Minnaar 24 November 2009
Dangers of pesticides and the effect they have on human health
First of all I want to thank Jurgen Schirmacher, and everyone involved for the invitation to this meeting here today. I know Jurgen since October 2006. We met after I read a newspaper report in the Sunday Times dated October 2006 with regard to pesticide poisoning in Riebeek Kasteel. We shared the same problems and the same interest, namely “pesticides”, two provinces far apart. Jurgen, South West in Riebeek Kasteel, Western Cape and myself, North East in Groblersdal, Limpopo.
Yes, 2 provinces apart not knowing each other but fighting the same problem, pesticide poisoning. To attend this meeting here today in Stellenbosch is a big honour to both of us.
I want to introduce myself by giving you some background.
I am a medical practitioner in Groblersdal, Limpopo for the past 12 years. I saw serious illnesses like miscarriages, partial facial paralysis, cancers, ear malfunctions as well as milder poisoning symptoms, such as asthma, sinusitis, headaches, dizziness, blurred vision and depression among many of my patients. Commercial farmers are spraying large amounts of pesticides on crops in Groblersdal. Groblersdal is surrounded by farms and throughout the year there is constant crop spraying with pesticides containing organophosphate’s and carbamates. No one has ever informed the community what pesticides are being used, even though the law states people must be notified before spraying.
I started investigating after I realized that the symptoms I had experienced over six years followed a pattern. I experienced chronic fatigue, nausea, muscle aches and pains, skin rashes and arthritis, particularly from August till November.
I laid complaints with the registrar of the national agriculture department but was unsuccessful to get government and regulatory authorities to intervene at that stage.
The history of pesticides
In recent years, few environmental issues have aroused the concern of the public as much as pesticides, especially in relation to the health of children.
Prior to World War II, the pesticides that we use now did not yet exist. Some pesticides currently in use were in fact developed during the World War II for use in warfare. The organophosphate insecticides were developed as nerve gasses. The phenoxy herbicides became a component of Agent Orange. After World War II these chemicals began to be used as pesticides in agricultural production.
Rachel Carson’s revolutionary book, Silent Spring, first published in 1962 (ironically enough, the year in which I was born), started the slow process of raising political and public awareness of the hazards posed to wildlife, humans and the ecosystem by the use of pesticides. This process continued with Our Stolen Future, described by then Vice-President Al Gore as the sequel to Silent Spring, which documented the health effects of endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Since then, there have been hundreds of scientific studies done to determine if there is a relationship between pesticide use and human health problems.
Routes of Exposure
There are many sources of exposure to pesticides. The three routes of exposure for pesticides are oral ingestion, dermal absorption and inhalation. Children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of pesticides. Children eat and drink more per kilogram of body weight than adults. Their skin is more permeable and their livers do not excrete as efficiently as adults’. Their hand-to-mouth behaviour increases the chance of ingestion and their dermal contact is increased because of a proportionally larger skin surface, and because they play on the ground outdoors and on the floors indoors.
Acute effects of pesticides are well documented in the literature, especially with respect to organophosphate poisoning. However, the chronic effects of pesticide exposure are much more difficult to assess. Hundreds of studies done in the past few decades have attempted to establish whether chronic exposure to pesticides has adverse effects.
Symptoms of Acute Pesticide Poisoning
These are the symptoms you are warned about on the label. Most of these illnesses are the daily flu-like or typical gastro, allergy symptoms for example headache, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, diarrhea, skin rashes, coughing, runny nose etc.
More severe cases develop muscle weakness, muscle twitches, change in heart rate, bronchospasm, convulsions and coma.
These are the symptoms people don’t really worry about, but what most people don’t know and don’t believe is what a low dose chronic exposure can do to human health and the environment.
Symptoms of chronic low-level exposure
Common pesticides used in homes, lawns and agriculture are now being shown in medical research to cause serious health problems years after exposure.
Even in the absence of acute poisoning, chronic exposure is associated with a broad range of non-specific symptoms, including headache, dizziness, fatigue, weakness, insomnia, confusion, as well learning and behavioral problems. “Multi-symptom Illness” related to “Gulf War Veterans syndrome”. Memory problems, mood alterations and chronic respiratory problems.
Chronic exposure can cause neurological problems such as ADHD, Parkinson’s and autism. Some pesticides are endocrine disrupters and some pesticides can damage or weaken the immune system, can cause birth defects and cause many types of cancer.
Piosoned Profits: The toxic assault on our children, written by Philip and Alice Schabecoff says: “Genetics loads the gun, but the environment pulls the trigger”.
Why worry about pesticides and health?
The conclusion is straightforward – exposure of the developing child to even small levels of common everyday chemicals during the critical window period of development can result in many health problems evident throughout life.
Scientific evidence increasingly points to links between the cancer epidemic and exposure to certain chemicals including pesticides.
People are daily exposed at work and at home through pesticide spraying (in agriculture, parks, open spaces, gardens, house plants, via food and in water!)
Children are especially vulnerable and the unborn child can be affected by parental exposure.
Did you know?
Many people believe that we are superior to nature, they truly believe that our health is completely unaffected by what is in the environment – no matter how toxic. This believes needs to change.
I am standing here today because of my own experience I had due to pesticide poisoning as a result of pesticide drift. I am concerned about the effect it has on human health and the current legislation and regulations on the use of pesticides in South Africa. I would like to see a change in the SA Government’s policies on pesticide uses.
What do we want?
A safer and cleaner environment needs strong laws, especially to protect the most vulnerable groups in society such as pregnant women, children, farm workers as well as farmers.
Taking a precautionary approach, we want to see:
§ A ban on avoidable, cancer causing and neurotoxic pesticides
§ Targets to reduce the use of pesticides and eliminate or minimize exposure
§ Pesticide free areas where children can play and learn without the risk of being exposed to harmful chemicals such as parks, schools and sports grounds
§ Healthcare strategies and national cancer plans that include plans to reduce exposure
Why launch a pesticide campaign now?
New European rules on pesticides have been introduced because of concerns about serious health effects. The SA government is reluctant to act. There is a need in SA to provide information on pesticides and health issues, to give a voice to concerned citizens, cancer sufferers and their families. There must be support to those who want to rapidly reduce their dependence on pesticides.