Scale of suicides by pesticide poisoning revealed by new study

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According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), pesticide self-poisoning is one of the most frequent means of suicide across the globe, killing an estimated 115,000 people a year and around 15 million people since 1960. The ingestion of highly hazardous pesticides (HHPs) affects Asia in particular, with it accounting for 60-90% of suicides in China, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka, as well as Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean, over the past decade. 

“Suicide attempts often occur at short-lived moments of great stress. The easy availability of highly lethal means – like pesticides or guns – at these times massively increases the risk of the person dying.”

– Professor Michael Eddleston

Experts believe the epidemic began with the Green Revolution in the 1960’s, which introduced high yielding seeds, increasing the use of fertilizer and irrigation methods. Although the Green Revolution resulted in an increase of yield in agricultural practices globally, it also introduced HHPs, such as organophosphorus insecticide, to communities of low and middle-income countries. Combining this with little, to no regulations and a lack of facilities to store HHPs securely, it has left them easily accessible where they are often drunk with little thought of the consequences, which usually is death. Alternative pesticides, however, although still toxic, would only result in mild to moderate poisoning requiring a brief visit to the hospital.

To prevent further deaths, experts from the Centre of Pesticide Suicide Prevention (CPSP), at The University of Edinburgh, are working with the United Nations to identify the most hazardous pesticides and reduce their use through regulation. Professor Michael Eddleston, Director of the CPSP, said: “Suicide attempts often occur at short-lived moments of great stress. The easy availability of highly lethal means – like pesticides or guns – at these times massively increases the risk of the person dying. The absence of these highly toxic pesticides allows people to survive their poisoning attempt and then go on to find help in their communities and local mental health services. Many go on to live a long and fulfilling life”

With little, to no regulations and a lack of facilities to store HHPs securely, it has left them easily accessible where they are often drunk with little thought of the consequences.

Their work alongside the government in Sri Lanka has resulted in a significant reduction in the accessibility of HHPs and their replacement with safer alternatives. This alone has ensued a drop in the number of pesticide suicides in the country, saving around 93,000 lives from 1995 to 2015. It has also highlighted that the removal of HHPs reduces the risk of pesticide poisoning, through their application to the land, and the risk of food and water contamination. The benefits of this project to the community, public and environment of Sri Lanka has highlighted to WHO the usefulness in pesticide regulation and now promote other countries to follow suit.

For further information, visit the CPSP website at www.centrepsp.org/pesticide-suicide

Written by Olivia Matthews and edited by Tara Wagner-Gamble

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