What is pesticide poisoning?

Raising awareness on the hazards of pesticides and assessing the impact of pesticides on human health.

Pesticides kill target organisms by disrupting essential biological processes. Unfortunately, because our bodies often depend on similar processes to function properly, our health can be affected too.

Risks to human health from pesticides include acute effects, ranging from nausea and dizziness to convulsions and death. Long term effects include cancer, birth defects and damage to the nervous system and functioning of the endocrine (hormone) system.

How does pesticide poisoning occur?

Exposure to pesticides can occur at any stage from manufacture and packaging of the pesticide to distribution, storage, use and disposal. Pesticides can be absorbed by ingestion, inhalation and through the skin.

Who is affected?

Farmers and other users of pesticides are at high risk of pesticide exposure, particularly if they do not use protective measures. Their families and communities may also be at risk. While poverty increases vulnerability to pesticide poisoning, anyone can be affected by pesticides in their food or environment.

Scale of the problem

Pesticides are known to cause millions of acute poisoning cases each year, of which at least one million require hospitalisation. In a study in Burkina Faso, over 82% of farmers surveyed reported having experienced symptoms of pesticide poisoning.

Counting the cost

In addition to the human tragedy that results from pesticide poisoning, there are significant economic implications due to loss of labour and the cost of treatment. These costs tend to be overlooked in cost/benefit analyses.

A study in Sri Lanka estimated that the health impacts of pesticide exposure cost farmers an amount equivalent to ten weeks income.

What can be done?

The first step in tackling this problem is to understand it. Better information is urgently needed to determine whether the pesticides available can be safely used under local conditions.

Pesticide incident reporting systems collect systematic data on cases of pesticide poisoning in order to provide information for regulatory decisions and safety advice.

Data may come from a variety of sources, such as:

  • surveys
  • medical reports
  • death certificates
  • poison control centres
  • government sources (e.g. work-related morbidity and mortality figures)
  • emergency telephone hot-lines

The investigation of an incident should gather a variety of information relating to the pesticide itself, the way it was used and any safety precautions. If safety advice was not followed, the investigation should determine whether the advice is practicable under local circumstances

Reports of particular types of incidents being repeated can alert authorities to the need for changes to reduce the occurrence of such incidents in the future.