Agro-chemicals come in all shapes and sizes.
But among those sanctioned for legal use, few rival organophosphates in both effectiveness and lethality.
Organophosphates are nervous toxins which shut down the nervous systems of pests and insects by inhibiting an enzyme called acetylcholinesterase; the same mechanism employed by chemical weapons such as Sarin or VX gas.
While their success in eliminating farm pests has in many ways made them the global pesticides of choice, they carry an additional advantage which makes them more attractive to some environmentalists.
Their presence in our air, food or water is therefore not a subject of great concern unless when consuming freshly sprayed farm produce.
Organophosphates therefore constitute the majority of pesticide brands farmers purchase over the counter making them among the most widely used pesticides in the world.
This is still besides some of them like phorate being both toxic and hard to degrade environmentally…but that’s a subject for another day.
But organophosphates are infamous in a number of other ways.
Concerned farmworkers must therefore be equipped with personal protective equipment such as gowns, gloves, goggles and gas masks (the 4Gs of PPEs) before handling them.
Whereas most farmers in developing nations have access to such equipment, most farm employees in flower farms and other horticultural establishments in nations like Kenya don’t.
For the most part, these workers constitute the bottom of the pyramid, some of them taking home a gross salary of as little as USD 60 per month.
As if that’s not enough, for many of them, their daily exposure to such toxic environments could well be for over 6 hours.
And since they can’t afford to abscond from duty, they must remain committed despite the hazardous environments they are exposed to.
PPE aside, they must wake up everyday to ensure that food is on the table and that their children go to school.
Even as they handle pesticides which protect their employer’s investments, their health is constantly being put at jeopardy day in day out.
Continuous exposure to organophosphate pesticides such as diazinon have been associated with instances of leukemia and breast cancer though the data hasn’t been conclusive enough to label them human carcinogens.
Besides being acute poisons at certain dosages, organophosphates target the nervous system precipitating symptoms such as dizziness, nausea and confusion.
Though these symptoms might not stand out starkly, organophosphates being nervous toxins are also known to take a toll on the mental well being of farm workers over time.
Though deterioration of mental health is a reality most societies have to grapple with, an emerging epidemic is in the offing especially in farmlands.
Besides difficult economic times elevating people’s stress levels, poor yields due to climatic changes and lack of government support have put many farmers in a difficult position.
Being encompassed with all these challenges, a number of them have fallen prey to depression and despair resulting into suicide attempts due to organophosphate poisoning.
A research carried out in 2014 at the Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital in Eldoret, Kenya reported organophosphate pesticides as the chemicals of choice in over 90% of the suicide cases reported.
But the seriousness of the organophosphates goes beyond their use as suicide agents.
Being nervous toxins, exposure to them over time is known to lead to depression, hyper anxiety, confusion and possibly mental illnesses like Alzheimer’s.
In other words, they are a double edged sword not only creating the conditions for mental health deterioration but at the same time being key facilitators of suicide attempts.
This reality by itself puts organophosphates among chemicals of key concern when considering the mental health of farming communities.
Besides mental health interventions, there is a need for qualified agrochemical specialists to offer useful training about responsible pesticide use and applying pest control methods such as integrated pest management.
INTEGRATED PEST MANAGEMENT (IPM)
IPM is a framework that aids farmers in scouting for and taking remedial steps to prevent a build up of pests in the farm.
It utilizes a spectrum of control techniques such as the use of sticky traps, predator species, plant extract sprays, analysing pest life cycles and responsible soil management practices among others.
An IPM approach doesn’t necessarily discourage the use of chemical pesticides. It only advocates for their use as the last resort reducing their negative impacts on farmers’ health.
PERSONAL PROTECTIVE EQUIPMENT (PPE)
Legislation in nations like Kenya is bound to play a crucial role in guaranteeing availability of PPEs to farmworkers most of whom work in flower farms.
This is a space cut out for the political class most of whom get elected on the platform of reforms to improve people’s lives.
But it is also a space open to those willing to make a positive change in the society by safeguarding not only the livelihoods but the lives of peasant workers.
Articles such as this one are important in that regard but are not necessarily the only avenue.
Various other ways such as lobbying through workers’ unions, using performing arts etc. could help in exerting pressure on decision makers to act accordingly to safeguard human lives.
Organophosphate pesticides, though beneficial, adversely affect the quality of life of the same people we depend on for sustenance: farmers.
Though these chemicals help in facilitating food security, measures must be taken to protect the ones applying them on the farms that feed us.
Blurred boundaries must be redefined.
Organophosphates must be confined to the farm and blocked from impacting people negatively.