The red alert on insecticides
THERE is enough cause for concern on reports of a growing body of evidence linking different environmental exposures to cancer in recent years. The link has long caused some disquiet among global health authorities and it is, therefore, incumbent on the government, regulatory authorities and citizens generally to watch the health risks of deadly insecticides especially the hazardous components of such products.
The latest signal to stakeholders on pesticide-induced diseases was issued the other day by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the specialised cancer agency of the World Health Organisation (WHO), which evaluated the carcinogenicity of the insecticide, gamma-hexachlorocyclohexane (lindane) and dichlorodiphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT) and the herbicide 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic (2,4-D).
WHO had explained that a working group of 26 experts from 13 countries convened by the IARC monographs programme classified insecticide, the lindane, as carcinogenic to humans (Group 1) with sufficient evidence for non-Hodgkins lymphoma (NHL). Also, DDT was found to be probably carcinogenic to humans (Group 2A), based on sufficient evidence that it causes cancer in experimental animals. Epidemiological studies were said to have found positive associations between exposure to DDT and NHL as well as testicular and liver cancer. Strong experimental evidence further suggests that DDT can suppress the immune system and disrupt sex hormones.
These are serious threats to humanity especially when it is realised that lindane has been used extensively for pest control in agriculture and treatment of human lice and scabies. Although banned or restricted in most countries, high exposures have occurred in agricultural workers and pesticide applicators. DDT is believed to have even been applied widely to eradicate malaria. Exposure still occurs, mainly through diet which is likely to be a recurring health challenge.
Advisedly, experts note that the type and extent of exposure and strength of the effect of the agent are critical factors. However, desperate to reduce incidence of malaria attacks, thousands if not millions of Nigerians have been exposed to all manner of hazardous agents in unapproved insecticides or pesticides which find their way into the country through unofficial channels. These deadly products are easily available in the absence of effective enforcement of import regulations. Consumers are, therefore, at risk. Regulatory bodies – Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON) and National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) – including the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) among others, therefore, have key roles to play in controlling importation, circulation and consumption of these poisonous insecticides and other banned products. In the same vein, the Consumer Protection Council also has to wake up in the effort to save millions of children, women and other vulnerable groups. This calls for a raised level of awareness and enlightenment.
Malaria remains a big challenge in Africa. So is the worrisome figures of victims of rampaging cancer. With various environmental challenges in the country, the risks are higher now than before. It is even bad enough the scourge is a global affliction with which medical research is not keeping pace. Now, many more people are susceptible to the disease. The government of Nigeria also has a lot to do to enhance the healthcare delivery system while it supports its various agencies, especially in the health sector, for optimum performance.
There ought to be better ways to protect the home against malaria attacks than a total dependence on insecticides, more importantly as the supposed protection from hazardous sprays is hardly felt. Among such alternatives are good mosquito netting for rooms, apartments and whole buildings, encouragement of citizens to use mosquito treated nets, massive clearing of drainages and other water channels to reduce mosquito breeding, hence improvement of sanitation around the house and more.
Non-governmental organisations, government agencies and corporate bodies supporting the distribution of treated nets endorsed by WHO should also be further encouraged. Awareness of the gains from such protective devices should also be intensified especially in the rural areas.
To underscore the growing concern, a report released few years ago by a presidential cancer panel (U.S.) reiterated that “the true burden of environmentally-induced cancer is greatly underestimated”. The report, Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now, concludes that while environmental exposure is not a new front on the war on cancer, the grievous harm from carcinogenic chemical use has not been addressed adequately. That says it all for virtually all other nations across the world. By implication, this is a call for a concerted universal action.
Also, according to findings, health effects of pesticides may be acute or delayed in those who are exposed just as “strong evidence exists for other negative outcomes from pesticide exposure including neurological problems, birth defects, fetal death” and other disorders. Studies that also examined effects of pesticide exposure on cancer risk established associations with leukemia, brain, kidney, lung, breast, prostate, liver and skin cancers. Experts have admonished that risk occurs with both residential and occupational (for instance farm workers) exposures.
For individuals, families, occupational workers and the government, the dangers are present and clear. A holistic approach to surviving the onslaught is therefore advised in order to save humanity.
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