Protect Children From Pesticides

Children and youthHealthNutrition

Notes to broadcasters

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The World Health Organization estimates that pesticides (including herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, etc.) poison more than 3 million people worldwide every year. Other estimates put the figure as high as 25 million agricultural workers in developing countries alone. Estimates of unintentional deaths due to pesticides range from 20,000 to 200,000 globally each year. Children are particularly vulnerable to pesticides, especially children who work on farms and plantations, often mixing and/or applying pesticides. Their nervous systems and immune systems are still developing and can be more easily damaged. Many more children are involuntarily exposed to pesticides during spraying, or when they enter pesticide-treated areas too soon. Pesticides can have immediate effects on health, or the effects may show up later in life. International standards and most labour laws prohibit work with pesticides for children under the age of 18.

As a broadcaster, the more you do to promote careful use of pesticides, and to reduce pesticide use, the more people you help. Many organizations around the world promote safer use of pesticides. There are also many organizations that help people who are trying to farm without pesticides. There’s a short contact list of these organizations in the information sources at the end of the script.




Doctor Subrahmanyam:
clinic doctor
Mrs. Gurumurthy:
mother at clinic with her children

MUSIC [introductory music, then fade out].

Host/interviewer: Hello, I’m []. Welcome back to our series of programs about children’s issues. Today’s show is about the dangers of pesticides.

I heard a story recently about a small village where many children are sick. The villagers say that pesticides are causing the illnesses. But the people who use the pesticides deny it. They say the villagers have no proof.

I wanted to know for myself. I have children, so this issue concerns me personally. I decided to travel to the village to investigate and to speak with the clinic doctor.

After a long trip, I arrived at Doctor Subrahmanyam’s clinic in the village. It’s a small hut, thatched with dried leaves. There are two rooms — a waiting room and a room to see patients. When I arrived, adults were sitting in the few chairs, and many children were playing on the floor or sitting on the front steps. There were a surprising number of people at the clinic, considering that the village itself is very small.

Here is the interview with Doctor Subrahmanyam and his patients that I recorded that day.

SOUND EFFECTS [people talking, children playing; fade under interviewer].

Thank you for agreeing to meet with me today, Dr. Subrahmanyam. I can see that you are very busy — and so many children! What kinds of illnesses do these children have?

Doctor Subrahmanyam:
Many of them have deformed limbs. Some are not developing properly — either physically or mentally. Many have skin diseases. The children in this village suffer from a great number of different illnesses.

But this is really a very small village. Why are there so many sick children?

Doctor Subrahmanyam:
Before I answer your question and tell you what I think, I want to introduce you to Mrs. Gurumurthy and her children. Her son has cerebral palsy, and her daughter has deformed arms and legs. Both children have serious skin problems. They have come to the clinic to get new medicine for their skin problems. The Gurumurthy’s have several other children.

[in a quieter voice aside] We are walking to the other end of the room to meet Mrs. Gurumurthy, who is waiting to see the doctor with her children. I can’t imagine how Mrs. Gurumurthy copes.

Doctor Subrahmanyam:
Hello, Mrs. Gurumurthy. I’d like you to meet [name of interviewer]. He’s come to find out why so many children here are getting sick.

Mrs. Gurumurthy:

[voice at normal volume] Hello. Mrs. Gurumurthy, how long have your children been sick? Are they getting any better?

Mrs. Gurumurthy:
They’ve been quite sick for about five years now, both of them. We are learning to live with their disabilities, but their skin problems are getting worse. We live very close to the cashew grove. So our house is soaked in spray when the crops are sprayed with pesticides. It seems that every year their skin gets worse after the spraying. But we cannot afford to move anywhere else.

Do you believe that pesticides cause your children’s problems?

Mrs. Gurumurthy:
[sharply, with anger and frustration] What else could it be? There are villages just a few miles away where the children are all healthy. They don’t spray chemicals in those villages. We’ve asked the plantation owners to stop. We’ve showed them how our children are sick. Grow your crops organically, we say. But they won’t listen! We just want the spraying to stop!

I am sorry, Mrs. Gurumurthy. [Pause] Doctor Subrahmanyam, what do you think — is it pesticides?

Doctor Subrahmanyam:
Of course we will probably never know with certainty that pesticides are causing the illnesses. But Mrs. Gurumurthy is right — there are villages a few miles away where the children are healthy, and where they do not spray these particular pesticides. I can understand why these people are angry. Their children’s lives are being destroyed. Nobody in the village has the money to do a full scientific study of the illnesses. That’s what these commercial farmers want before they will stop spraying.

But this must be frustrating. If they won’t stop spraying, how can the villagers protect their children from pesticides?

Doctor Subrahmanyam:
These people are farmers too, and there are a few things they can do. First and most important, children must always be far away when pesticides are used. And they should never be allowed to play with pesticide containers. Second, children must not be allowed in the field for at least two days after spraying. Longer if possible. The label may tell you to stay out longer. Always read the label. But two days is the minimum. And third, store pesticides where children can’t reach them.

What about older children? Some of them might use pesticides themselves.

Doctor Subrahmanyam:
Even older children should not be allowed to use pesticides. But if they have to be protected, the best way is to wear clothes that cover as much of the body as possible. Wear long trousers or a long apron, a long-sleeved shirt, rubber boots or shoes and a hat. Wear unlined plastic gloves that reach to the elbows. Never wear cloth or rubber gloves, because they will absorb the pesticides. And always wash hands with soap and water after using pesticides.

MUSIC and SOUND EFFECTS [fade in background music and fade up sounds of people talking, children playing; fade out music, and fade other sounds under interviewer].

I’m outside Doctor Subrahmanyam’s clinic now. There are many more children outside waiting to see him. It’s not a happy sight. [Pause] Before I said goodbye to Doctor Subrahmanyam, he mentioned one other thing. He said that pesticides can sometimes hurt children before they are even born! If a woman is pregnant and pesticides touch her skin or if she breathes in their fumes, the poisons enter her bloodstream. The unborn baby can be poisoned when the mother’s blood enters the baby’s body. So women who are expecting a child, or who are thinking about starting a family, should be especially careful around pesticides, or avoid them entirely.

MUSIC and SOUND EFFECTS [bring up music and sounds of talking and playing again, then fade out sounds of talking and playing; fade out music].

That interview took place several months ago. I thought a lot about those children after I returned from the village. I don’t know for certain whether pesticides made these children sick. But the doctor seems to me a wise and honest man. My feeling is that we must all be careful. If you have to use pesticides, be extra careful. And keep children far away from pesticides, and from areas and crops that have been treated with pesticides. Remember, you might save your crops from pests, but you could ruin your children’s lives. [Pause] I’m [] [name of host], and you’ve been listening to [].

Doctor Subrahmanyam:


Contributed by Vijay Cuddeford, researcher/writer, North Vancouver, Canada.

Reviewed by Peter Hurst, International Labour Organization – International Programme for the Elimination of Child Labour, Geneva, Switzerland.

Information sources

CSE laboratory analysis strengthens suspicion that the Kerala Pesticide Tragedy is a government corporation’s creation. Press Release. Centre for Science and the Environment.

Cuddeford, Vijay. Pesticide safety: radio spots. Developing Countries Farm Radio Network. Nov. 1998.

Cuddeford, Vijay. Pesticides can hurt unborn children. Developing Countries Farm Radio Network. May 1999.

McGivering, Jill. “Indian children in pesticide controversy.” BBC News Online. 8 Mar. 2002.

Jeyaratnam, J. “Acute Pesticide Poisoning: A Major Global Health Problem.” World Health Statistics Quarterly. 1990.


Pesticide Action Network (PAN) Africa
Sicap Amitié I villa N° 3018, Dakar, Senegal
Mail: PAN Africa, BP 15938 Dakar-Fann
Dakar, Senegal
Tel: (221) 825 49 14
Fax: (221) 825 14 43

PAN Asia and the Pacific
PO Box 1170, 10850 Penang, Malaysiaz
Tel: (60-4) 656 0381
Fax: (60-4) 657 7445

PAN Latin America
Coordinadora Regional de RAP-AL
Alianza por una Mejor Calidad de Vida/Red de Acción en Plaguicidas
Avenida Providencia N° 365, Dpto. N° 41, Providencia, Santiago de Chile
Tel: 562-3416742
Fax: 562-3416742

Groundwork: Environmental Justice Action in Southern Africa
91c Burger Street, Pietermaritzburg 3201
PO Box 2375
Pietermaritzburg, 3200
South Africa
Tel:  (+27) 033-3425662
Fax: (+27) 033-3425665