Plastic container puts a brake on suicides by ingestion of pesticides – University of Copenhagen

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05 April 2016

Plastic container puts a brake on suicides by ingestion of pesticides


It is not something we often hear about here at home, but annually, more than 300,000 people die because they ingest pesticides. This equals pesticides being the cause of one third of all suicides worldwide. It is particularly in the rural regions in Asia that pesticides is a huge killer, because there pesticides are widespread and easy to access at home, and they are far more poisonous than the pesticides sold in Denmark. No more than a few gulps is enough to kill a human being.

Since 2007, Professor Flemming Konradsen and his colleagues have conducted a research project on Sri Lanka where they have investigated whether something as simple as a plastic container with a lock can reduce the number of tragic suicides.

Usually, farmers will store their pesticides in the house or in plastic bags outside. Which makes the dangerous pesticides easily accessible should a family member be contemplating suicide.

Many of the people who ingest pesticides do so on impulse, in a moment of despair, or often following a family conflict, but in by far the most cases, they have no real desire to die.

The container, the fabrication of which Flemming Konradsen has been party to, is made of very strong plastic and it is top-secure. It has both an inner and an outer lid, it is waterproof, locked and buried in the ground.  Only one family member has the key to open the box. To increase security further, some families have opted for two different keys, allowing two family members to carry one key each. In other words, no one person can open the box on their own.

The assumption is that once access to these frequently used means of suicide becomes restricted, the number of actual suicides will also be significantly reduced. Once the pesticides are locked in a box and placed in the middle of some far-off field or a garden, the impulse that drives many suicides will have to be substituted with more planning and chances that a person will change their mind or others will have time to intervene will increase significantly.

More than 250,000 participants included in the study

The study from Sri Lanka shows the concrete willingness of households to use the secure boxes. A substantial so-called “community-based cluster randomised trial” among 252,000 inhabitants from 52,000 households, will reveal whether this intervention will significantly reduce the number of attempted and accomplished suicides. Half the households have received and installed a secure pesticide box while the other half will constitute a control group. Between 2010 and June 2016, the number of suicides in the two groups will be registered via a detailed network of collectors at hospitals and in villages.

The box may improve statistics, but it would be far better if the pesticide and farming industries could come up with alternatives to the most toxic pesticides and if politicians would ban the sale of the more poisonous ones. Previous studies from Sri Lanka, with the contribution of researchers from the University of Copenhagen, has shown that phasing out the highly toxic pesticides has meant a significant reduction in suicides, and it also reveals that only to a very limited degree do people choose alternative ways of committing suicide. Limiting the number of pesticide poisonings is a global task, where politicians, researchers, NGOs, the UN and the individual consumer all play an important part.