“We just burn these containers of pesticides or just throw them around like we throw away used bags of fertilizers,” observed Sydney Chileya a farmer in Luanshya.
These are the numerous stories we hear, watch on television and read in our newspapers every day, of people unaware of polluting the environment let alone inappropriate use of the millions of litters of chemicals that are exposed to the environment through the prevention and control of pests.
With millions of Kwacha spent in the control of Armyworms (Spodoptera Frugiperda) and other pests that have rocked this year’s maize crop, the negative impact these chemicals cause to the environment is yet to be felt.
As much as these chemicals are useful to protect the good harvest to guarantee food security for the country and for export to the neighboring countries, these chemicals and the bottles can be very harmful to the environment and to human health if not well disposed of.
The burning of polystyrene polymers (non-degradable substances) such as foam cups, plastic bottles, and containers releases a contaminant gas called styrene. Styrene gas can readily be absorbed through the skin and lungs and can increase the risk of heart disease, aggravate respiratory ailments such as asthma and emphysema, and damages in the nervous system.
These chemicals can also cause death if consumed or if used inappropriately.
The action of the farmers to negligently throw away plastic bottles and burn some of them is a serious hazard not only to humans and animals but the entire biodiversity (Biodiversity boosts ecosystem productivity where each species, no matter how small, all have an important role to play, for example a larger number of plant species) upon all living things depend on.
Maximum care should be taken into consideration when using chemicals and non-biodegradable materials such as plastics as they do not decompose easily when buried for many years.
“Leakages of pesticides in the environment can lead to contamination on drinking water sources, livestock and other non-target but essential flora and fauna,” Chief Field Crops Agronomist Malumo Nawa, observed.
The Zambia Environment Management Act (ZEMA) No. 12 of 2011 states that we all have a duty to protect the environment.
Burning of whatever material especially plastic is very harmful to the environment and to all the three mediums of the environment being, land, air and water. Once polluted air, land and water, pose a risk of contracting deadly diseases like cancer.
A 2012 report by the World Health Organization shows that plastic materials when burned, release basic metals and fumes into the atmosphere that are known to carry cancer-causing dioxins (highly toxic compounds). These dioxins can enter the air as well as pollute soil and food. The dioxins are classified as toxic and may result in emphysema, cancer and birth defects. Even at very low levels, dioxins can cause serious immune system damage as well as premature death.
Research also shows that each time toxic substances escape into the environment, they can pose an immediate threat to health and life. For example, in 1984 about 3800 people in Bhopal, India died when 40 tons of methyl isocyanate (a colorless highly inflammable liquid that evaporates quickly when exposed to the air) gas leaked from a pesticide plant.
With ineffective health delivery systems in Zambia and many other parts of the developing countries, it is important that farmers avoid burning or carelessly disposing of plastic materials especially those containing poisonous chemicals like the one used to kill armyworms.
It is also important to note that treating diseases like cancer which are caused by pollutants is a serious drain on the limited national resources that would otherwise be used in other development activities.
ZEMA Principal and Communications Officer Irene Chipili advised farmers to protect human health by using personal protective clothing when handling pesticides. The agency advises farmers to keep pesticides in a place away from food or drinking water. And after use, the bottles should be retained back to the ministry of agriculture or agro dealers for safe disposal.
Another Environmental Health report by the WHO conducted in 2012 indicated that 12.6 million people died from environmental health risks adding that endocrine-disrupting chemicals which contribute to cancer growth are found in the fumes of burned plastic. The WHO also estimated that over 176,000 people die per year in Africa due to outdoor pollution.
These statistics should serve as a clear lesson to our farmers to be very careful and take responsible action in disposing and handling chemicals and plastic materials in their care.
In addition, the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), an organization based in the United States of America (USA) whose ultimate vision is a Just toxic-free World states that the burning of plastic results in long term environmental changes that affects human health. Excessive greenhouse emissions are created when plastic is burned, and the process of greenhouse gas formation is a strong contributor to global warming.
“If chemicals are not disposed of properly they can cause environmental pollution which destroys the quality of soil used for agriculture and too much of the armyworm chemical can destroy land,” Mr Nawa said.
There seem to be inadequate sharing of information on safe handling, use and disposal of chemicals and proper disposal of the bottles.
“I shared my chemicals with my neighbours so that the armyworms on their fields do not shift back to my farm. In my case I burned the bottles for fear that that the kids might start playing with the bottles. However, when I asked my neighbours how they disposed of the bottles I gave them, they told me that they just threw them way. They said that the bottles are not different from Masaka ya fertilizer yamene timataya chabe meaning bottles are just disposed of the same way fertilizer sacks are disposed of,” Mr Sydney Chileya revealed.
Given the dangers and the statistics that poor handling of chemicals may cause, the question therefore, is, how can farmers safely adapt to the armyworm chemicals and the bottles?
Mr. Nawa observes that the safe way to dispose of the bottles is by thoroughly rinsing them with clean water preferably three times and then leave them to dry in the sun. After the bottles have dried, there is a requirement that the bottles should then be punctured at the base so that they are never used for any other purpose such as storing local drinks like ‘munkoyo’.
The Ministry of Agriculture is advising farmers to return the bottles to the Ministry for safe disposal so that they do not pose a danger to the environment.
“The containers should never be used for storing anything especially food stuffs. For those chemicals from the Ministry of Agriculture, the empty containers should be returned to the Camp Extension Officers for safe disposal,” Mr. Nawa, advised.
The long term solution to prevent such poor handling of the chemicals and plastic bottles and the risks associated with accidental poisoning from consumption of food stuffs from the bottles that contain chemicals, is massive sensitization especially to the small scale rural farmers.
It is also important that the Ministry of Agriculture works with the media and other stakeholders in sensitizing farmers on the best way to use chemicals used in agriculture and disposal of containers.
Educating farmers on the safe methods of handling chemicals and the disposal of containers is critical to sustainability of the environment not only for the present generation but also for the future generations. -NAIS.