Malaysia's cheap pesticide sprayers pay with health
By R MageswaryAsia Times Online
IPOH, Malaysia - Kamala (not her real name) is constantly scratching her hands and complaining that they hurt. Her hands are already red and blotchy - but so is most of her body.
She is a pesticide sprayer in a palm oil plantation that is just a few hours' drive from the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur. She has been working there for the past three years, the same period of time that she has had to put up with skin problems and other ailments.
''When I spray the pesticides and work across the tall weeds, my clothes get drenched with the chemicals and I start itching,'' says Kamala. She also suffers from nausea and dizziness. Kamala is not alone in her ordeal, says Dr Isa Mohamad Abdul Majid of the state-run National Poisons Center. Indeed, many other sprayers have been found to be suffering worse ailments, from blurred vision to tremors to cancer.
Palm oil and rubber are among Malaysia's main exports. Almost all of the pesticide sprayers at the plantations where these are grown are women because they command lower wages than men. At present, there are about 30,000 women pesticide sprayers in the country, and health experts say many of them are working without much protection from the harmful chemicals that they handle on the job.
According to Sarojini Rengam of the non-government organization Pesticides Action Network (PAN), these sprayers handle pesticides classified by the World Health Organization as Class 1, such as monocrotophos, methamidophos and carbufurun. Class 1 pesticides are highly toxic substances which have to be handled according to specific instructions.
Some plantation management do provide protective clothing for their workers. But more often than not, say activists, the workers themselves refuse to wear these, complaining that they are too hot.
Part of the problem is that the workers are often unaware how dangerous the pesticides are. Pesticide sprayers mix the chemicals with their bare hands. At times, some even blow into the nozzles of their equipment with their mouths to remove blockages.
Dr Isa says: ''There is no clean water for irrigation of the eye . . . If this happens in the field, they would normally use the closest water source such as water from the nearby stream that would usually be contaminated with the pesticides from the mixing activity.''
Isa, Sarojini and Kamala were among the participants at a recent national conference on pesticides and women's health. Jointly organized by the Poisons Center, PAN and the women's NGO Tenaganita, the conference had extensive discussions on the plight of women plantation workers.
Isa says all of the 72 sprayers who participated in research he conducted beginning 1992 contracted a variety of illnesses, including those that Kamala is now experiencing. The results of Isa's research, which concentrated on pesticide sprayers in palm oil and rubber plantations throughout Malaysia, were released recently.
''All those interviewed have suffered either vaginal pains, burning sensation when passing urine, nausea, vomiting, difficulty breathing, skin problems, giddiness, tremors, abdominal pains, fatigue, blurred vision or discoloration of the nails,'' he says.
Plantations in Malaysia have basic medical facilities. But the services they offer may no longer be adequate for the various illnesses of the workers. Vasugi (not her real name), for example, repeatedly sought medical aid from the plantation clinic for acute pains in the breast region that later also affected her throat and neck. The hospital attendant gave her huge amounts of painkillers.
Still no better after a year, Vasugi went to a medical center. ''I was diagnosed with breast cancer and had one breast removed,'' she says. ''The pain is still there and the doctor thinks I could have been affected by the exposure to pesticides for six years.''
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), some 37,000 cases of cancer occur annually due to exposure to pesticides. Various reports in recent WHO journals also reveal that 25 million agricultural workers in developing countries suffer an episode of pesticide poisoning each year.
Moses comments that ''the severity of the symptoms and the usage of the highest toxicity pesticides'' in Malaysia ''are shocking''. But it is not as if Malaysia has no laws to prevent this happening.
In fact, the Malaysian Occupational and Safety Health (OSHA) Act requires that a safety and health committee be formed if there are more than 40 sprayers in a plantation. ''But this has not been adhered to,'' says Irene Fernandez of Tenaganita. Apparently, the health ministry, which is supposed to monitor such matters, has been unable to ensure that all plantations comply with the act.
The women sprayers themselves say their unions have failed to present their welfare and health issues to the management. Plantation workers here are mostly union members.
Tenaganita, PAN and the Poisons Center are now working on recommendations for the government on the health problems faced by the sprayers. Among the suggestions are that the government effectively enforce the provisions under OSHA as well as a ban on all WHO Class 1 pesticides. Also listed is a call for more mechanical controls like cutters and the rearing of sheep and goats to keep the grass down. Says Sarojini: ''We have tried talking to the management about this but they say it is cheaper to employ women sprayers.''