January 29, 2009, The Santiago Times


Two thirds of the poisonings involve Bayer´s Metamidofos

Thirteen farm workers from the town of Pelarco recently became ill after being sprayed with toxic chemicals known as plaguicides. The accident occurred days after Chile's Health Ministry disclosed that 710 farmers were victims of similar accidents nationwide in 2007, prompting labor advocates to call for greater control over the chemical substances.

"Plaguicides" is an all-inclusive term that refers to a wide range of agrochemicals: pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, etc. On average, says the Health Ministry, some 700 people suffer acute poisonings from plaguicides every year in Chile.

According to the NGO Chilean Plaguicide Action Network (RAP-AL), the latest incident took place on Jan. 16 in a small farming sector called Bajo Lagunilla, located 15 kilometers from Talca. The workers, all employees of the company Sociedad Agricola Beyce, notified their bosses that they were going to be working in the fields. In spite of this warning, company officials proceeded to spray the entire area-and the workers-with the toxic insecticide Zero 5 EC.

The thirteen employees immediately came down with severe headaches, nausea, stomach aches, and shivers, and all of them were hospitalized. After taking chemical baths to remove the insecticides, the workers were placed under observation for several days before allowed to return home. Shortly after the incident, Region XII Health and Labor Ministry officials investigated both Sociedad Agricola Beyce and Fumital, the company which carried out the fumigation. Both companies were shut down after the accident occurred, and were only allowed to reopen after complying with regulations and paying a fine of Ch$3.5 million pesos (US$7,500).

"This incident shows us that, in Chile, there continue to be bad practices in the agriculture industry. There is little concern for both the health of the workers who are exposed to plaguicides and environmental contamination as a whole," RAP-AL Director María Elena Rozas told the Santiago Times. "The checks that were carried out later on revealed a completely defenseless workforce, and thus serious violations of industry norms. Above all, this accident reminds us that, regardless of their classification, all plaguicides are dangerous."

Rosas also called on Chile's Agriculture and Cattle Service (SAG) to apply far stiffer penalties to companies that put workers at risk. "The fines, as they stand now, do not represent a strong enough fine for these companies, and they will not help things change."

The 710 workers cited by Chile's Health Ministry who were accidentally sprayed with agro-chemicals in 2007 oftentimes risked serious health threats. More than 39 percent of those accidents involved chemicals the World Health Organization (WHO) classifies as 1a and 1b: considered "extremely" and "very" dangerous, respectively.

Meanwhile, in 2005, at least 785 people were poisoned nationwide by plaguicides, according the Health Ministry. In roughly 85 percent of the cases, health authorities were able to identify the specific chemical involved. More than 150 of those cases (23 percent) involved chemicals classified as 1a and 1b. Nearly two thirds of the 1a/1b poisonings involved a chemical called metamidofos, distributed in Chile by the multinational Bayer Corporation under the trade names Tamaron and Baythroid.

The Health Ministry statistics, however, may just be the tip of the iceberg. The real number of poisonings, says Rosas, may be between 2,500 to 3,000. "What worries us is that for every one of those cases, there are many more that don't get reported," Rosas told the Santiago Times. "There are a lot of reasons not to report. It's been calculated that in the best case scenario, for every case that's reported, four go unreported". By Matt Malinowski

See also the Open Letter to Bayer “Stop the sale of highly poisonous pesticides immediately!“