A new study shows that many Cambodian vegetable farmers suffer from acute pesticide poisoning. It is the latest to indicate that Cambodia, like many other developing nations, is struggling to protect farmers and consumers from the dangers of pesticides.
Twenty-two-year-old Srey Kuot is a contract farmer who grows vegetables on a plot of land outside the capital, Phnom Penh. Like most Cambodian farmers she knows pesticides can harm her health. But, like most, she mixes several into a poisonous cocktail.
She says when she sprays pesticides she uses gloves, boots, a mask and a long shirt and trousers. If she did not, she says, it would enter her body and cause illness, which will be very difficult to cure, so she has to take precautions.
But Srey Kuot has no idea what pesticides she uses because the seller at the market in Phnom Penh provides them to her and tells her how to use them.
She says the person who gives her the pesticide tells her how strong it is. And the labels for these chemicals are only in Vietnamese and Thai.
A group of Danish researchers recently interviewed 89 farmers growing vegetables on outskirts of Phnom Penh. They found that 90 percent had experienced symptoms of acute pesticide poisoning.
Their report, published this month in the Journal of Toxicology, says many lack suitable protective clothing, even though about half the pesticides used by the farmers in that study are classified by the World Health Organization as Class I or Class II - which means they are moderately to extremely hazardous to human health.
Some of those pesticides are banned here, but the Danish report says they are smuggled into Cambodia.
The Danish survey echoes one done in 2008 by the Pesticide Action Network, Asia and the Pacific - or PANAP. That study looked at the use of highly hazardous pesticides in eight Asian nations, including Cambodia, Sri Lanka, India and China.
The PANAP study found that two-thirds of the active ingredients used in pesticides by the 1,300 farmers surveyed had highly hazardous characteristics, and presented what the organization called "unacceptably high risks to communities".
The Danish report calls the use of "highly toxic pesticides one of the most significant hazards" for farmers in low-income countries. And it notes that in many developing countries, the widespread availability of the most hazardous pesticides has turned them into a common method of committing suicide.
Moderate pesticide poisoning can cause muscle cramps, chest pains, blurred vision, vomiting and many other symptoms. Swallowing Class I and II pesticides can be very quickly fatal.
When it came to the Cambodian section of PANAP’s study, a third of farmers said they used no protective gear when spraying pesticides. And even among those who did use protective gear, none used a respirator.
Both the PANAP and the Danish studies found that none of the 95 pesticides it assessed carried labels in Khmer, the language of Cambodia, despite a law requiring Khmer labeling.
Keam Makarady, an agronomist and pesticides expert at Cambodian agricultural organization CEDAC, says that is typical.
"We can say that 95 percent are labeled in a foreign language. So it is difficult for the farmer to know what kind of pesticide that they use, and also the direction for the safe use of pesticides," Makarady said.
Makarady says CEDAC and other agricultural aid groups train farmers on safer handling of pesticides, and it pays off.
He says that typically 80 percent of farmers at the start of a training program use the most dangerous types of pesticides. After training, that number comes down sharply.
"But now [after trainin]) the number of farmers that use the banned and restricted pesticides or highly hazardous pesticides has decreased,” Makarady stated. “Now it’s only 10 percent."
Makarady says the problem with pesticides has him so concerned that he buys only organic fruit and vegetables for his family. But buying organic is not an option for most Cambodians, because produce grown without chemical pesticides or fertilizers usually is more expensive.
The Danish team says that if the government enforced its own ban on the worst pesticides, the number of farmers being poisoned would come down.
The government says it is working on a new law that will punish people who import banned pesticides.
However, there is no set timetable for introducing the legislation on pesticides.