Globe, Latin America, Lifestyle, Okology

Agrochemicals: medicine for plants, poison for humans

In areas close to farms that use herbicides, cancer cases are 30% higher than in the rest of the country. Miscarriages, rare diseases and physical defects are on the increase in regions where the use of spray planes is widespread.

Ramón Alabau

Andrea is 14-years-old but her adolescence is unlike that of her peers, who spend their time playing in the park.  She suffers from epidermolysis bullosa, a disease causing blisters and sores to break out on her skin.  Her delicate condition means that she is unable to enjoy herself in the same way as the other children in her neighbourhood.

Living close by is 36-year-old Omar whose body maintains a constant twisted posture. Despite his age he spends most of his time in his mother’s arms, his guardian angel.  She is a woman who has seen how her son’s severe problems have not allowed him to live a normal life.  When he was born, doctors diagnosed him with cerebral palsy.  He cannot walk or communicate and is in no way able to lead an independent life.

From his bed he can hear Lucas, barely two years old, crying.  Lucas suffers from ichthyosis, a genetic disorder characterised by dry skin, which can lead to the appearance of fish-like scales on the body.

These are three different cases all found in the same place: Argentina.  A country where the number of illnesses and deformities among children and newborns grows alongside its crop fields.

Andrea, Omar and Lucas all have different health problems but they all share one common factor, they live in villages and neighbourhoods surrounded by large soy bean plantations.  Everyday they hear the motors of the spray planes as they fly overhead, close to their homes and schools.

Toxic rain

They watch as the planes spray liquid over green stretches of land, which cover the countryside. According to several organisations, the use of agrochemicals may be linked to the disorders suffered by Andrea, Omar, Lucas and thousands of others.

In Argentina, one of the largest soy bean producers in the world, the number of cases of children with deformities has significantly increased over the last few years.  In this country it is estimated that 12 million citizens are exposed to the herbicides used in agriculture, which remain suspended in the air they breathe.

The industry flourished in 2011 with the help of more than 300 million litres of agrochemicals.

The alarm has been raised in several small villages.  In Ituzaingó, an area of 5000 inhabitants in the province of Córdoba, 80% of young people have been affected.

Concerns expressed by families upon seeing so many of their children being born with health problems, forced public authorities to carry out a medical study.  The results were shocking. From a study of 142 children, 114 had traces of agrochemicals in their bloodstreams.

Misiones Province is another region with a high number of citizens with deformities.  Statistics show that 5 of every 1,000 children suffer from health problems.

Despite an increase in diseases, deaths caused by cancer, and the fact that many women experience frequent miscarriages, the use of chemicals in Argentine agriculture is still legal.

“Incorrect usage” the excuse used by those in power

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), and under the classification system created by this same international institution, 83% of herbicides used in Argentina are considered “not harmful”.

Furthermore, Glyphosate, one of the most common products used in the removal of unwanted weeds, is classified as acceptable.

This classification, supported by both FAO and by the World Health Organisation, is the focus of harsh criticism.  One of the most dedicated individuals in defending the removal of agrochemicals in agriculture is Claudio Lowy.

This Forest Engineer, who led a hunger strike at the doors of the Argentine Ministry of Agriculture, has called for a change in the current methodology used to classify pesticides.

He maintains that a proper assessment of the effects that the permitted products can have has not been carried out.  “Only severe life threatening effects are taken into account and no attention is paid to the chronic sub-lethal toxicity that these chemicals produce,” he told one media reporter.

“They make them seem less toxic than they really are.  Meaning that if they cause deformities or cancer they are not actually killing,” he adds.

Furthermore, he explains that the reports from these international organisations are not scientific, that they do not provide any real conclusions and are the result of private investigations, many of which have been carried out by herbicide producing companies.

Casafe, an association of companies who produce and sell agrochemicals, assures that when used correctly, these products are not “toxic”.

Justice decides

Public opinion is varied.  Harmful or not, one of the cases that has greatly supported the fight for agriculture without agrochemicals, was a mistake made by the Argentine justice system last August.

For the first time in the history of Latin America, two defendants who were accused of allegedly having incorrectly fumigated an area close to a village were sentenced to three years in prison.  The case was seen from two different points of view, for many it did not question whether or not the use of legal agrochemicals affected the population’s health, but only whether these chemicals had been used incorrectly.

For others it marks the first step towards restricting the use of chemical products in agriculture.

Casafe says that they “are confident of the safety” of the products used on farms but that “incorrect usage can lead to problems”.

A different reality

This view is not shared by the thousands of people who are exposed to these herbicides.

One person who has carried out some of the most extensive research into the connection between the use of agrochemicals in agriculture and the growing incidence of deformities is Doctor Juan Carlos Demaio.

Through his investigations, this surgeon has been alerted to the fact that many of the health problems that have been detected are linked to the indiscriminate use of fertilisers.

His evidence is based on the different cases he has treated in Misiones, one of the largest tobacco and paper producers in Argentina.

According to lawyer Raúl Godoy, it is here that Demaio has confirmed that up to 13% of the population suffers from some type of disorder, including 3,000 children who have physical defects.

The FAO’s “Good Agricultural Practices” states that in order to achieve quality products that are not harmful to consumers. “Officially registered and low toxicity pesticides” should be used, and the FAO also admits that it is aware of the “increase in diseases caused by foods”.

Small isolated populations are not the only ones to suffer the impact of agrochemicals on their health.  In December, an accident in Buenos Aires led to its citizens experiencing the effects of these chemicals first hand.

Health centres attended to 309 individuals.  Complaints included headaches, eye irritation and nausea, after only one day of exposure caused by an accident that spread the pesticide Thiodicarb over the sky of the city.

This product is classified as “moderately hazardous” and the event suggests that complaints from the rural community are not the result of occasional incidents.

Despite accidents and complaints linked to public health, the current Argentine government has not limited the use of agrochemicals. It has merely regulated their usage and has stated that the chemicals are not dangerous to humans.

In 2013, however, authorities have decided to restrict the use of Endosulfan.

Despite the belief that they provoke several types of deformities, there is still a long list of these chemical components being used in herbicides, and they will continue to be present in the air that thousands of people breathe every day.

(Translated by Rebecca Hayhurst – E-mail:

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