Averting Bhopal-like tragedies for the livelihoods children rightfully deserve

Every year on December 3, we are reminded of the horrors of the Union Carbide subsidiary pesticide plant in the city of Bhopal, India that exposed more than 500,000 lives to the deadly methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas.

If anything at all, this tragedy should serve to remind us about the obligations we shoulder to protect and realize children’s right from exposure to toxic chemicals.

Children are on the frontline of these toxic assaults as industries inevitably contaminate most of the safe environments that children occupy. From the food they eat, water they drink, the air they inhale, to the grounds they fall and play, almost all in one way or another have been contaminated by persistent organic pollutants in the form of pesticides.

In September 2016, PAN in its submission to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) has outlined recommendations for governments to address the problems of children’s exposure to highly hazardous pesticides.

Studies have revealed that innocuous exposures to low levels of pesticides, such as those that are commonly found as residues in food or drift on the wind, are posing threats to the health and wellbeing of children, and pushing them closer to a lifetime legacy of damage and failed potential.

In 2015, 11 children aged between two and six in Bangladesh became victims of pesticide poisoning. They suffered from fever and convulsions after eating fruits laced with pesticides before succumbing to their eventual death shortly after consuming what was supposed to be safe. These deaths are not isolated incidents. Children have been and continue to be harmed by the unforgiving effects of pesticides on them.

Children living in rural areas in particular are more exposed to pesticides. In a 2015 study in Malaysia, it was found that children aged between 10 and 11 exposed to organophosphate(OP) and carbamate type pesticides near the rice paddy fields had poor neurodevelopment. They had poor motor skills, poor hand/eye coordination, attention speed and perceptual motor speed compared to those who were not exposed. Children also had lower cholinesterase levels, a clear indicator of OP poisoning.

Horrendous tragedies such as Bhopal, Kasargod, Kamukhan and the death of Silvino Talavera, as well as the tragedies of everyday exposure that fly under the radar, will continue unless serious actions are taken to put an immediate halt to children’s exposure to highly hazardous pesticides.

The international chemicals conventions, national pesticide regulatory processes, and government policies which are primarily responsible to safeguard our children, are all, unfortunately, failing to do so.

PANAP’s recommendations to the Committee on the Rights of the Child on child rights and the environment was to urge governments and relevant stakeholders to change agricultural policy and practices to remove the assumption that pesticides are necessary. In addition, farmers are encouraged to move to agroecology (a biodiversity-based ecological agriculture) or organic agriculture and ensure that pest, weeds and diseases are managed by the methods that cause the least harm to humans and the environment (Principle of Precautionary and Minimum Harm).

Also, as an initial measure, to institute buffer zones for plantations or farms that use pesticides, and to monitor them regularly to ward off the effects of pesticide drift especially on children.

At the same time, a report of the Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes also reflected PAN’s call.

“When exposure does occur, children are too often left without access to an effective remedy or justice for harms related to toxics and pollution. The deadly, lifelong impacts of this assault on children’s bodies frequently remain invisible until later in their lives, making it difficult to prove how and when the damage was done, and enabling impunity for perpetrators.

“Solutions to the challenge of toxics and their impacts on children are available, but they must be rooted in human rights to be effective, including the obligation on States to prevent childhood exposure to toxic chemicals,” wrote the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Hazardous Substances and Wastes on his Duty to Prevent Childhood Exposure report.

The UN Special Rapporteur Baskut Tuncak has underscored the importance of both state obligation to prevent childhood exposure and business responsibility to prevent exposure by children to toxics.

States have obligations to protect children from toxic pesticide exposures. They are in the predominant position to safeguard a child’s right to a healthy and safe environment. States should adopt the precautionary and minimum harm principles to ensure the assaults are averted.

It has become clear that the problems we have today with children’s lives being continuously wrecked by pesticides are because of institutional failures to acknowledge that pesticides are not necessary.

Most governments and many scientists assume, often overlooking available evidence, that pesticides are necessary. Good science and a wealth of observational data have repeatedly shown that farmers can make more money and improve their food security and the health of their families and the environment by not using pesticides and practicing agroecology instead.

On the other hand, businesses or corporations too have a duty to prevent another pesticide tragedy that would threaten the already vulnerable population.

Agrichemical corporations can’t be kept on letting off the hook for the perpetuation of toxic pesticide assaults on children in the name of profit. Profit at the expense of innocent lives is deplorable and should not be condoned.

Although legislations have been in place for an environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes, children continue to die from pesticide poisonings.

Baskut’s report read: “Children die with startling regularity from pesticide poisonings. A major contributor to this problem is that a large number of hazardous pesticides that present unmanageable risks are not banned or restricted at the global level. Another significant problem is the half a million tons of obsolete pesticides scattered across developing countries and seeping into soil and water.”

Bhopal-like tragedies would most certainly be well under their way due to the lax enforcements and an absence of greater political will to tackle this problem.

poc-petition-panap-panindiaBy ensuring governments take up the mandate to protect children from different childhood exposures and holding corrupt businesses publicly accountable would be paramount to provide the current generation and the many more to come the livelihoods they rightfully deserve — a livelihood free from toxic pesticide assaults.

PANAP and its partners are demanding state governments to institute pesticide-free buffer zones to protect children in the rural and agricultural area from the harmful effects of pesticide exposures.

Help to create awareness on pesticide-free buffer zones and realize that it can have the power to protect our future generations from the impacts of toxic pesticides.

Read more and sign the petition here.