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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Tobacco firm rejects poisons claim

Tobacco firm rejects poisons claim

Critish American Tobacco, the world's second largest tobacco company, has denied

it is negligent in recommending a potent pesticide to its contract farmers in Kampong

Cham province, but failing to offer them protective gear.

The multinational's comments came after some villagers contracted to grow tobacco

for BAT told the Post the company had recommended the pesticide, but had not provided

training on how to use it. BAT does not provide protective gear as a matter of course,

said a company representative.

None of the small group of contract farmers the Post talked to was aware that Endosulfan,

which is banned in ten countries including Germany, Sweden, Norway, Singapore and

Indonesia, was even dangerous.

Khem Chanvirak, a BAT employee in the province, confirmed the company recommends

Endosulfan, rated Class II by the World Health Organization, to growers but does

not provide gloves or face masks. Instead, he said, BAT taught growers the skills

and education to ensure safe use.

"We tell them to use it carefully," he said, "because Endosulfan can

poison just like any other pesticide."

The extent of how just how dangerous it can be was revealed in a recent Indian study

which linked aerial spraying of Endosulfan on cashew plantations to - among

other afflictions - nervous system disorders, mental disorders, cancers and genetic

mutations. The young, it stated, were worst affected.

The February 2002 report was produced by Thanal, an Indian public interest group,

in conjunction with the Pesticide Action Network. The study was carried out in Kasaragod,

southern India and concluded that the health complaints of local people were as a

result of exposure to the pesticide, which has the toxicological properties of DDT.

The report's study team was led by Dr Romeo F Quijano, professor of pharmacology

and toxicology at the University of the Philippines. Dr Romeo stated in a press release

that in his expert opinion, Endosulfan exposure was the only reasonable cause of

the Indian villagers' health problems.

Ghazali Salamat, BAT's regional leaf director, told the Post that the company provided

tobacco seedlings to growers. Its first recommendation to growers who needed to combat

pests was neam leaf, a natural pest controller; the second was one of a number of

commercially available pesticides, including Endosulfan.

He estimated around 30 percent of BAT's 800 contracted tobacco growers used neam.

The rest used other products including Endosulfan, but he was not able to give precise

figures.

"We don't as a company issue the Endosulfan to our farmers," he said. "Endosulfan

is one of the approved chemicals for use on tobacco, and is also approved by the

US Department of Agriculture."

However, the Thanal report quotes the US Environmental Protection Agency as classifying

Endosulfan as a Class 1b poison. It is regarded as highly hazardous and is easily

absorbed by the stomach, the lungs and through the skin.

In the south-east of Cambodia, 20-year-old Kela told the Post that no BAT representatives

had shown him how to use the pesticide safely in the three years he had been growing

tobacco for BAT.

He sprays around ten tins of Endosulfan a day in the peak growing season, which lasts

for around three months of the year. That equates to around three liters of pure

Endosulfan per season. It was hard, he said, to avoid the sprayed liquid dripping

on him.

His mother said BAT representatives had come simply to show them how to plant tobacco;

she had not had any training on how to use the pesticide safely.

BAT's Ghazali admitted it was possible some farmers had missed training sessions

as attendance records were not kept, a practice he agreed the company should change.

However, if BAT staff on their regular visits encountered a farmer using pesticide

incorrectly, they would tell them how to use it safely.

"[We tell them] how you mix it, don't use your hands, use long sleeves, use

masks, don't spray against the wind," he said. "When we do that training,

of course we do not get 100 percent attendance all the time. And others might not

adopt what we advise them to do."

He said that during demonstrations farmers were shown that gloves and masks should

be used, but confirmed the company did not provide such basic protective equipment

to its growers.

"In terms of providing [masks and gloves] on a regular basis for their normal

use - that we don't," said Ghazali. "The farmers have their own responsibilities

as well."

The head of the Bureau of Agricultural Material Standards at the Ministry of Agriculture,

Chea Chanveasna, told the Post that Endosulfan was on Cambodia's restricted use list

as it stayed in the environment for a long time after use.

"In Cambodia 'restricted' means it should only be sold to those people who have

the experience to use this. Endosulfan cannot be freely sold and we only allow its

use under certain conditions," said Chanveasna. "But it should not be used

on leafy vegetables or tobacco as the leaves retain the poison."

He added that Endosulfan should only be sold to people who had permission from experts

attesting to the fact that they had the knowledge to use the pesticide properly.

Use of proper equipment was also a prerequisite.

BAT's Ghazali said as far as he was aware the pesticide was approved for use by the

government.

Dr Yang Saing Koma, director of the Center d'Etude et de Développement Agricole

Cam-bodgien (CEDAC), said long term exposure causes chronic toxicity. He was also

concerned at the effect the pesticide could have on fish - organochlorines accumulate

in the food chain, and many Cambodians rely on fish for their protein.

"It is more dangerous if people do not use it properly," he said. "This

type causes long term effects on both human and animal health."

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