Workers of research institute, farmers suffer illnesses due to toxic pesticides

“Regulation of pesticides in the Philippines is a joke. The Fertilizer and Pesticide Authority (FPA) is basically controlled by the pesticide industry and their state sponsors and backers, particularly the United States and European countries.”


By RONALYN V. OLEA

Bulatlat.com

MANILA — “Some of our colleagues have already died. Some are battling several diseases.” Patricio Layosa Jr., a former employee of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), told Bulatlat.com. His long, thin face was painted with sadness and rage.

Layosa went on to name a few. Raymundo Mercado died of a kidney disease in October 2002. Juanito Malbataan died of kidney and lung disease in 2000. Pantrasio Mercado died of kidney failure, bronchitis and leukemia in August 2002. Benigno Carandang died in 2001 due to kidney failure. Leoncio Mercado died in 2005 due to tuberculosis and kidney failure. Last year, Serafio Malbataan died of prostrate cancer, tuberculosis and kidney disease.

The 55-year-old leader of IRRI’s former union, Brotherhood of IRRI Support Services Group (Bissig), blamed pesticide poisoning for the deaths and diseases.

In a 2013 documentary entitled “Feeding Lies,” Serafio Malbataan, former IRRI worker, said he applied toxic pesticides such as furadan on the rice fields without protective clothing. He died of prostate cancer, tuberculosis and kidney disease in 2014. (Screen grab from the documentary of KI Multimedia)
In a 2013 documentary entitled “Feeding Lies,” Serafio Malbataan, former IRRI worker, said he applied toxic pesticides such as furadan on the rice fields without protective clothing. He died of prostate cancer, tuberculosis and kidney disease in 2014. (Screen grab from the documentary of KI Multimedia)

Many Filipino farmers believe that the use of pesticides results in high yield of crops. Some of these pesticides, however, pose dangers to human health.

A 2012 study by University of the Philippines Manila published by the Journal of Rural Medicine revealed that the widely used insecticides in the Philippines such as carbofuran, endrin, parathion, and monocrotophos are extremely hazardous or highly hazardous, according to the classification by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Records of the Manila-based National Poison Control Management Center (NPCMC) showed that from 2004 to 2009 alone, there were 632 cases of pesticide poisoning.

Many other incidents of pesticide poisoning among farmers and agricultural workers have not been recorded.

The IRRI workers’ experience

Does Layosa have basis to blame IRRI?

Dr. Romeo Quijano, one of the country’s leading toxicologists, conducted a study in 2000 and found out that IRRI used the following highly toxic pesticides: Endrin(endrin), Azodrin (monocrotophos) , Furadan (carbofuran), Gramoxone (paraquat), Round-up (glyphosate), Hytox (isoprocarb), 2-4 D (2-4 D), Methyl bromide, Decis (deltamethrin), Malathion (malathion), Hopcin (b-p-methylcarbamate), Basudin (diazinon), Machete(butachlor), Thiodan (endosulfan), Brodan (chlorpyrifos), Benlate(benomyl), Sevin(carbaryl), Brestan (triphenyltin) and Zinogas(zinc phosphide).

In a 2013 documentary entitled “Feeding Lies,” medical toxicologist Dr. Romeo Quijano discussed the dangers of toxic pesticides on the health of IRRI workers. (Screen grab from the documentary of KI Multimedia)
In a 2013 documentary entitled “Feeding Lies,” medical toxicologist Dr. Romeo Quijano discussed the dangers of toxic pesticides on the health of IRRI workers. (Screen grab from the documentary of KI Multimedia)

In an interview via email, Quijano said endrin has listed initial 12 persistent organic pollutants (POPs) targeted for global elimination or phase out under the Stockholm Convention. Signed by over 150 countries, the Stockholm Convention is a global treaty to protect human health and the environment from POPs. According to the Convention, POPs are chemicals that remain intact in the environment for long periods, become widely distributed geographically, accumulate in the fatty tissue of living organisms and are toxic to humans and wildlife.

“It [endrin] was used by IRRI even at a time when its extremely toxic properties were already known and developed countries have already begun to disallow its use,” he said.

Quijano said that another extremely toxic pesticide, Thiodan, which is chemically related to endrin and also a POP, was also being used by IRRI well into the 1990’s – even while some countries had already banned or restricted its use, and years after the manufacturer had been found guilty of submitting fraudulent toxicological data to regulatory authorities.

Quijano, also president of Pesticide Action Network (PAN) Philippines, added that even pesticides identified by the WHO as Class I or extremely hazardous and highly hazardous such as Azodrin, Furadan, Gramoxone, Zinogas and Methyl Bromide, were being used by IRRI even when local conditions do not allow “safe use.”

Manifestations of pesticide poisoning

In the same study conducted by Quijano, 62 percent of 88 former IRRI workers complained of severe headache, dizziness, skin rashes, soggy eyes, motion sickness, numbness, muscle pain, trembling, vomiting, chest pain, cough and hyperacidity.

Furthermore, 66 percent of the respondents said they suffered serious illnesses in the course of their employment at IRRI. Among those mentioned are: abdominal cyst, bronchitis, pulmonary tuberculosis, paralysis, Parkinson’s disease, kidney failure, mild stroke, scrotal cyst, loss of hearing, thyroid cyst, kidney stones and heart disease.

Quijano acknowledged that there might have been other factors, such as cigarette smoking and the presence of other toxic substances that could have contributed to the illnesses. However, the research data shows that the use of toxic pesticides contributed the most to the development of diseases in the respondents.

Furthermore, about 23 percent of the respondents have children born with abnormalities during their stay at IRRI. Among the abnormalities are congenital heart disease, mental retardation, physical deformity, paralysis, ganglion disease, meningitis, and rheumatic heart disease.

The study said that while the presence of other factors that could possibly cause the same abnormalities cannot be excluded, exposure to pesticides known to be embryotoxic, genotoxic, or endocrine disruptor is the most likely factor that could explain the high occurrence of such child abnormalities.

Embryotoxic refers to toxic effects on the embryo of a substance that crosses the placental barrier. Genotoxic are chemical agents that damage the genetic information within a cell causing mutations. Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that, at certain doses, can interfere with the endocrine (or hormone) system in mammals. These disruptions can cause cancerous tumors, birth defects, and other developmental disorders.

Quijano said that after the study, PAN Philippines, along with former IRRI workers, sought a dialogue with IRRI but their request was ignored.

Quijano said that while IRRI declared later that it is no longer using highly hazardous pesticides in its research, IRRI has never acknowledged its responsibility in causing adverse health effects to the workers that it had deliberately exposed to such highly toxic pesticides.

In an email interview, IRRI communications specialist Bianca Ferrer said two of their pest experts who can answer the questions regarding the use of hazardous pesticides are no longer with IRRI.

Ferrer, however, said that between 1993 and 2008, IRRI reduced insecticide use by 96 percent. She said the institute is also promoting “working with nature’s natural enemies” to prevent pest outbreaks from happening.

Persistent problem

The case of former IRRI workers is not isolated.

A recent study on the pesticide use among farmers in Southern Mindanao published in the International Journal of the Bioflux Society revealed the use of some of the banned and restricted pesticides such as endosulfan and monochrotophos. The study found out manifestations of mild pesticide poisoning among the 701 respondents. These included skin irritation, headache, cough, dry throat, shortness of breath, dizziness, nausea and eye irritation.

Meanwhile, workers of the Filipinas Palm Oil Plantation Inc. (FPPI) and Agumil Plantation Inc. (API) in the towns of Rosario and Trento in Agusan del Sur and A. Brown palm oil plantation in Opol, Misamis Oriental are exposed to highly hazardous pesticides such as paraquat, glyphosate and furadan.

Furthermore, in a 2012 initial study conducted by PAN Philippines in the DOLE banana plantation area in Surigao del Sur and the palm oil plantations in Agusan del Sur, signs and symptoms of paraquat poisoning were observed among the agricultural workers. These included abnormalities of the skin, mainly on the hands and feet with signs of scarring, discoloration, loss of melanin pigmentation. Respiratory abnormalities, cardiovascular abnormalities, hypertension, neurologic signs and symptoms, and eye disturbances were also reported.

Experts have recommended stronger regulation on the use of toxic pesticides.

“Regulation of pesticides in the Philippines is a joke,” Quijano said. He said the Fertilizer and Pesticide Authority (FPA) is “basically controlled by the pesticide industry and their state sponsors and backers, particularly the United States and European countries.”

Such lack of government regulation has claimed the lives of some of the former IRRI workers.

“Ganun-ganun na lang ba? Wala nang mananagot?” (Do we leave this issue just like this? Will no one be held accountable?) Layosa asked. ()

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