Obsolete Pesticides Piling Up in Latin America

ROME, Italy, May 31, 2005 (ENS) - The piles of toxic chemical waste from unused and obsolete pesticides in Latin America are at least three times larger than previously thought, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said Monday. But the international organization has run out of funds to help developing countries safely remove and destroy these chemicals.

"Previous FAO estimates, based on information provided by countries, suggested a total of about 10,000 metric tons of chemicals requiring disposal in the region," said Mark Davis, coordinator of FAO's obsolete pesticides program.

"Since that time a more frightening picture has begun to emerge indicating that stocks are far higher and are currently estimated to be between 30,000 and 50,000 tons," Davis said.

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Crews in full protective gear find and remove obsolete pesticides, but funds for this program have run out. (Photo courtesy FAO)
Obsolete pesticides are left over from pest control campaigns in cotton and other cash-crop production. Stockpiles have accumulated because a number of products have been banned for health or environmental reasons, but were never removed and disposed of. Some of the pesticides found by investigators are 30 years old.

In northern Colombia, around 200 metric tons of the most toxic pesticides were discovered in a single site in El Copey/César Region. Around 170,000 liters of highly hazardous methyl parathion and 10,000 liters of the persistent organic pollutant toxaphene were found.

The FAO has supported the government of Colombia in surveying the site and chemicals were repackaged and destroyed.

In addition, the Colombian authorities have discovered a site where an estimated 5,000 metric tons of pesticides have been buried at a location where some displaced families have settled and where housing construction is planned.

In Paraguay, urgent efforts are being made to remove 125 tons of pesticides and heavily contaminated material that were damaged by fire in the capital, Asunción, in July 2003. Efforts to extinguish the fire led to heavy contamination of the nearby Paraguay River, which flows into Argentina and finally into the Atlantic Ocean, as well as an adjacent village where people are now showing various symptoms of chronic contamination.

The FAO is assisting Paraguay in quantifying obsolete pesticide stocks in other parts of the country. Funds of approximately $3 million will be needed to remove and destroy this toxic waste before further harm is caused to people and the environment.

In Bolivia, old stocks of donated arsenic based pesticides and cocktails of volatile fumigants were found in residential areas and close to important water bodies, including Lake Titicaca.

Bolivia, one of the poorest countries in the region, has made efforts to take stock and safely secure these toxins by repackaging the waste with the support of FAO. But still Bolivia needs US$3 million to remove the chemicals and put in place measures to strengthen chemical management.

The FAO has organized a regional training program for nine South American countries. Government regulators, emergency service staff, industry representatives and nongovernmental organizations have learned how to safely and effectively complete a detailed inventory and environmental risk assessment of obsolete pesticides, and how to design and supervise a cleanup operation.

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A dead bird on a rusted pesticide can. (Photo courtesy FAO)
But now the FAO Obsolete Pesticides Programme has no further funds to support such work in the Latin America region, Davis said. The FAO is therefore calling for donor funding to build capacity in the region and to ensure that it complies with the highest international standards.

"Affected countries are calling - ever more frequently and with greater urgency - for assistance to remove their obsolete pesticide stocks and prevent the further accumulation of toxic waste," said Davis last September.

"Unfortunately, without additional funds from donor countries, FAO will be unable to respond to its member nations that need assistance because funding for an FAO programme on the prevention and disposal of obsolete pesticides is ending by the end of this year," he said then.

But donors have not come forward since then to help the FAO accomplish the safe disposal of these toxic stockpiles.

FAO has been the lead agency in dealing with obsolete pesticides in developing countries since 1994. FAO activities include initiating and coordinating national inventories, coordinating and monitoring disposal projects, publishing guidelines on prevention and management and public outreach. FAO also promotes and supports integrated pest management programmes and strong pesticide control measures.