WHEN Yorn Makara sprays pesticides on his morning glory crop at Boeung Tompun lake, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, he copies how his parents once used the chemicals, because he can’t read the instructions on the bottle.
“I buy pesticides and chemicals to mix in a container with water and the instructions are mostly written in the Thai or Vietnamese languages,” Yorn Makara says. “I know the chemical protects my crops from pests because I look at the pictures on the bottle.”
While Yorn Makara knows the pesticides are effective at killing pests, he can’t be certain of the dangers the pesticide poses to his health, as he can’t read the safety information.
According to a new study on pesticide use in Phnom Penh, Yorn Makara is not alone.
The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, found most farmers at neighbouring Boeung Cheung Ek lake had a limited understanding of how to protect themselves from dangerous pesticides, resulting in 88 percent of those surveyed reporting symptoms of acute pesticide poisoning.
“The main issue we uncovered in BCE lake was the heavy and frequent use of pesticides which have been banned or restricted by the Cambodian government,” said Hanne Klith Jensen, head researcher of the study which focussed on the farming practices of morning glory aquaculture farmers in Thnout Chrum and Kba Tumnub villages.
“It is of great concern because these pesticides used are highly toxic to human health due to their effect on the nervous system, causing symptoms like headache, muscle cramps, diarrhea, numbness, blurred vision [and] chest pains.”
While nearly all of the farmers interviewed in the study believed pesticides had a deleterious affect on their health, none of them used appropriate personal protection to prevent contact with the chemicals.
“None of the farmers [at Boeung Choeung Ek] were properly protected against pesticide poisoning and [many] experienced a wide range of symptoms related to pesticide poisoning by organophosphates and carbamates,” Jensen said.
Researchers also found poor knowledge of the dangers of the chemicals meant nearly 50 percent of farmers stored them in their house, placing their families at risk.
“Pesticides were most commonly stored carelessly inside the household within easy reach of children and close to food commodities which constitute a potential risk of daily unintentional exposure.”
The study’s findings, combined with previous studies on the use of illegal pesticides in Cambodia, indicate a weak enforcement of existing laws that ban the use of 116 hazardous chemicals and restrict the use of an additional 40.
In recognition of the health and environmental concerns posed by the use of illegal chemicals, the Ministry of Agriculture last year drafted a law to further regulate the use of hazardous agricultural pesticides.
The law’s sucess will depend on the ability to limit illegal imports from Vietnam and Thailand, as Cambodia itself does not manufacture commercial-grade pesticides.
Ouk Syphan, director of the Ministry’s Department of Agriculture Legislation, said the department was still receiving feedback on the draft law from farmers and non-government organisations, and that it was yet to be tabled in parliament.
He said the law would list banned chemicals and introduce punishments for those who illegally import them. It will also explain to farmers how to safely use chemical pesticides to cultivate their land.
Yang Saing Koma, president of the Cambodian Centre for Study and Development in Agriculture, said that while he was pleased the government had made an effort to draft a law on agriculture chemicals, much more needed to be done.
“I know the government is making an effort to make a law on management of agriculture materials and pesticides ... but the government needs to send their staff to educate the farmers directly,” he said.
“The agriculture department needs to directly educate farmers, combined with the translation of information on the label of the container.”
While the study by the Danish researchers focused on just one area of Phnom Penh’s outskirts, they warned that the danger from the misuse of pesticides was not limited to farming areas and that the long-term effects of human contact with the chemicals were still unknown.
“The general population in Phnom Penh is expected to be exposed through their daily intake of morning glory, which is a very popular vegetable among the Asian population worldwide,” Jensen said
“The long term effects of pesticides are still undergoing study but concerns about developing certain types of cancers have been raised,” she added.
“Even though our study is limited to conclusions about the situation in [Boeung Choeung Ek] there is no reason to believe the situation is better elsewhere in Cambodia.”