Greater protection against pesticides and chemicals in SA

19 August 2002
THE WORLD Health Organisation (WHO) has estimated that 25 million agricultural workers in developing countries endure an incident of acute pesticide poisoning annually. The Third World suffers 50% of global poisonings and 75% of agrichemical-related fatalities despite using only 20% of the worlds' agrichemicals.

To help address this problem, the Occupational and Environmental Health Research Unit (OEHRU) in the Department of Public Health and Primary Health Care at UCT is involved in two research projects. Both projects are focused on the promotion of healthy and safe living and working environments, with a view to reducing human and environmental exposure to toxic chemicals, especially pesticides.

OEHRU's Chief Scientific Officer Andrea Rother is coordinating the research. She says that although pesticides are used widely in South Africa and throughout the Southern African region for agriculture, domestic use, public health and public environments, legislation or difficulties in implementing it often fail to control the potentially hazardous effects of pesticides on humans and the environment.

"Some of the public environments effected are parks, railroad tracks, road sides, inside airplanes, hotels, hospitals and schools, areas used by high numbers of people every day."

DANCED has funded a project which supports work on transferring pesticide health and safety information to those most in need. The OEHRU team, Andrea Rother, Professor Leslie London and Motlagomang Maruping, developed pesticide health and safety materials and conducted training workshops for farm workers and emergent farmers in North West Province and Limpopo Province.

Materials developed in English, Northern Sotho and Tswana included 11 posters on pesticide issues such as safety, hazards, prevention, alternatives and first aid. A community radio programme on pesticides was developed and will be aired soon. A newsletter named Pesticide Up-Dates in English and Tswana was produced and covered information circulated on the OEHRU Southern African Pesticide e-mail list server. It targeted agricultural extension and environmental health officers who advise small-scale farmers on pesticide use.

Rother explains that one of the project components was to assess the effectiveness of pesticide labels in communicating hazard information to emergent farmers and farm workers. Often, the only safety, precautionary and first aid information they are exposed to is what is printed on labels.

Given its grassroots involvement in hazard communication and pesticide research, the International Labour Office (ILO) invited and funded the OEHRU to develop a comprehensibility testing methodology (CTM) for assessing how understandable chemical hazard communication tools are. The aim is to incorporate the testing methodology in the United Nations initiative for the Globally Harmonised System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS).

With support from UNITAR, the OEHRU assisted Zambia in implementing the UCT- developed tool during June 2002, after many months of preparation with the Environmental Council of Zambia. The OEHRU is currently in the process of exploring opportunities of how to share its expertise in the context of a new project addressing the implementation of the GHS in South Africa, initiated by NEDLAC.

There has been international demand for the OEHRU testing methodology and in some countries, including the US, aspects of the UCT tool have been incorporated into survey tools they had developed for their own use.

How well do you know your colours?

Do you use pesticides at home? Ever notice that there is a colour strip on the label with pictograms on it? Pesticides registered in South Africa should have a colour code on their labels indicating the level of toxicity and are ranked in the following order from most to least toxic:

  Very toxic. Most toxic pesticide registered in South Africa. Not available for general public to purchase.
  Harmful. Second most toxic pesticides registered in South Africa.
Available in supermarkets. Protective equipment should be used when applying.
  Use with caution. Use protection when applying.
  Keep locked away. This pesticide is still poisonous.

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