Last week’s mass fish death in Sungai Terla and the eventual forced closure of the Kampung Terla water treatment plant in Cameron Highlands, Pahang are very disturbing news. Tests done by the Chemistry Department found that excessive pesticide use was the cause of the fish deaths. The water treatment plant has been closed until the water is certified safe for consumption.
Pesticides are toxic poisons that cause irreversible damage to human health and the environment. Because of heavy use of pesticides in the agriculture sector and at homes, these toxic chemicals are today in every living thing from the tiniest invertebrates to humans.
The Consumers’ Association of Penang’s past investigations in Cameron Highlands and other areas has found indiscriminate use of pesticides. Farmers even use banned pesticides that are highly toxic to human health. The application of pesticide cocktails, i.e. mixing of different types of pesticides, to make the mixture more potent is also common.
Pesticides affect human health through acute effects, chronic effects or both. Chronic effects can be delayed effects from an individual exposure or the result of repeated low-level exposures, whose impacts build over time.
The health effects of pesticides depend on the type of pesticide. Some pesticides may be carcinogens, may affect the hormone or endocrine system in the body. Others may irritate the skin or eyes. Particularly worrying is the high susceptibility of unborn babies and children to pesticide poisoning.
The recent incident of pesticide contamination of the river and subsequently domestic water supply confirms that farmers in Cameron Highlands are still using high levels of pesticide. Agro-chemical companies continue to sell a range of pesticides and the profit-driven farmer who has no conscience keeps feeding people poison by applying pesticides. A farmer using pesticides may argue that the pesticide residue is within prescribed standard but we beg to differ.
The Codex Committee on Pesticide Residues is entrusted with developing Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs). Public health considerations are supposedly taken into account by establishing the MRLs at levels not higher than those resulting from use of the pesticide in accordance with Good Agricultural Practices (GAP). The issue is there is still pesticide residue on the food that we eat. Previously stipulated safe levels may not be safe at all as there is still much to be studied about these poisons.
The effects of pesticide exposure may not be felt immediately but in the recent case in Cameron Highlands, the acute effects were evident and we understand that many were taken sick after consuming the contaminated water.
The inaction towards the continued use here of pesticides has resulted in suffering of humans and death of aquatic life. The government although realizes the problems of pesticide usage, is slow in mainstreaming organic farming.
Organic farmers world over and CAP’s natural farming project has proven that vegetables and fruits can be produced profitably without using pesticides. The Malaysian government must take prompt action to nurture the transition from pesticides (chemically)-dependent system of agriculture towards more natural and sustainable organic agriculture. Failure in doing so will amount to colluding with those poisoning our people.
Letter to the Editor, 7 March 2012