17 August 2017

Ban is best solution to global pesticide suicide problem


Over 14 per cent of all world suicides involve the consumption of toxic pesticides. Pesticide suicide is a huge problem in low-income Asian countries in particular. New research involving the University of Copenhagen shows that the suicides are best prevented by national bans on the most toxic substances, rather than safe storage and sale regulations.

In some low-income countries, people committing suicide by consuming pesticides is a major problem. The toxic substances farmers use in agriculture are stored in the home by many. This makes them readily available as a means of suicide.

Globally, 14-20 per cent of suicides are committed using pesticides. In some parts of Asia the figure is as high as 50 per cent. However, a new study from a number of universities, including the University of Copenhagen, has shown that the current solution, involving secure, locked storage of toxins is not reducing the number of suicides.

A parallel study from the same universities has shown that the most effective way to reduce the number of suicides is national bans on the most toxic pesticides. The studies have just been published in The Lancet science journal.

Wrong strategy will lead to more deaths
Professor Flemming Konradsen, head of the School of Global Health, is co-author of both studies. He believes they underline the need for legislation and bans in the countries with the biggest problems.

“We obviously need to address the underlying issues behind these suicides. There are psychological, social and economic reasons why so many people take their own lives. But we have systematically reviewed studies from all over the world, and the conclusion is clear: the most effective way to reduce the number of suicides is through national bans on the most toxic pesticides,” he notes.

“This is not about the debate on the long-term environmental impacts and drinking water pollution from pesticide use. This is an acute problem, where tens of thousands of human lives are at stake each year. If we pursue the wrong strategy for too long, more people will die,” he stresses.

Best possible product gave no results
The first of the two studies pursued the solution recommended by many experts, public authorities and companies – secure, locked storage for toxic substances, explains Flemming Konradsen.

“For four years, we developed and tested products to find the best, most secure form of storage for toxic pesticides. Our final product was a waterproof barrel made of specially hardened plastic that can be buried in the ground. It was so tough that an elephant could stamp on it without it breaking. The barrel was double locked and buried in the farmers’ garden or field,” he explains.

This solution was tested in 90 villages with a total population of 110,000 in Sri Lanka, where the problem of pesticide suicide is great. There was also a control group comprising 90 villages with 114,000 inhabitants, in which villagers continued to store the toxins as before.

The study lasted three years, and the first group of farmers were even given reminders to store their pesticides in the secure containers. But even with these measures, it was impossible to detect a reduction in the number of suicides.

“Even with the very best and safest storage we were capable of developing, there was no significant change. We cannot reduce the number of suicides using this approach,” says Flemming Konradsen.

Bans better than sale regulations
The second study is a literature review, which examines the international research in this particular field. Twenty-seven studies were identified from a total of 16 countries that investigate the correlation between the regulation of toxic pesticides and the number of suicides.

Twelve of the studies examined national bans on the import and sale of specific pesticides in six countries. In five of the countries, a reduction in the number of suicides involving pesticides was observed following a ban. In three of the countries, the general suicide rate also fell.

Restrictions and controls on the sale of pesticides were also examined in some of the studies. The suicide rate also fell in just over half of these countries. But the researchers say this result cannot be used as a basis for conclusions, because the studies reviewed were of too poor quality.

Flemming Konradsen is in no doubt that it may be necessary to use pesticides in agricultural production in some cases. But he believes these studies clearly show that regulations and bans governing the most toxic products need to be introduced.

“We need to take action if we are going to address this problem. So I hope that these research results can provide a knowledge base for the people who can make decisions about bans and restrictions,” he says.

Read the full studies:

“Effectiveness of household lockable pesticide storage to reduce pesticide self-poisoning in rural Asia: a community-based, cluster-randomised controlled trial” (The Lancet, 11 august 2017)

“Prevention of suicide with regulations aimed at restricting access to highly hazardous pesticides: a systematic review of the international evidence” (The Lancet Global Health, 11 august 2017)

Professor Flemming Konradsen
+45 60 10 16 61