By Leopold Salzenstein
The desert locust infestation, described by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 2020 as a “scourge of biblical proportions,” is the worst the region has seen in decades, according to humanitarian groups. In Ethiopia, the triple threat of locusts, floods and Covid-19 threatened to tip the region into a humanitarian crisis.
To combat the emergency, governments have resorted to spraying large tracts of land with some 2 million liters of insecticides over almost 2 million hectares (5 million acres), since the beginning of the outbreak in December 2019, prompting concerns over the potential health and environmental impacts.
A new analysis of FAO pesticide purchase data can reveal that the concerns may be well-founded, as 95.8% of the pesticides delivered to East African nations over this period are scientifically proven to cause serious harm to humans and non-target organisms such as birds, fish and bees.
Though none of the six pesticides used in East Africa are classed as “highly hazardous” by the World Health Organization, chlorpyrifos and fenitrothion are considered “moderately hazardous” and malathion “slightly hazardous.”
The Pesticide Action Network (PAN), a campaigning group, lists all three compounds as “highly hazardous.” They are considered acutely toxic, a cholinesterase inhibitor, a carcinogen, a groundwater pollutant or reproductive or developmental toxicant.
According to a report by EcoTrac, an environmental consultancy, three are highly toxic to fish and mammals and two are highly toxic to birds.
FAO said it takes precautions to limit the risk of pesticides causing harm to humans and the environment.
If these toxins are to be used at all, people are advised to vacate the area for several days while spraying takes place, according to the FAO. The pesticides should be sprayed at ultra low volume, with a buffer zone of 1,500 meters (nearly a mile) from ecologically sensitive areas when sprayed by plane, and 100 meters (330 feet) when sprayed on foot. Locust control staff should wear personal protective equipment, and wells and beehives should be covered during spraying.
However, according to Silke Bollmohr, an environmental consultant at EcoTrac, safety measures are not always followed in East Africa. “Conservancies up in the north [of Kenya] were reporting that the sprayers didn’t inform the communities. There was no information about what pesticide had been used and not always a timely warning to protect water [sources], beehives and livestock,” she said.
In Ethiopia, two spraying planes and one helicopter have crashed since October 2020, raising further concerns about the risk of large amounts of toxic pesticides being released.
Most of the pesticides used in East Africa are organophosphates, a type of chemical developed by German chemical conglomerate IG Farben for the Nazis during World War Two that includes sarin gas. “[They] suppress an enzyme, called Cholinesterase (AChE), which regulates brain impulses, like nerve impulses, throughout the body,” Patti Goldman, an attorney at EarthJustice, a US-based environmental litigation group, said.
Organophosphates kill locusts by attacking their nervous system, but they do not distinguish between pests and other species. While cases of acute poisoning are rare when used at ultra-low volumes, organophosphates have recently come under heightened scrutiny due to their potential long-term impacts on human health.
Studies by Columbia University, Mont Sinai School of Medicine and the University of California, among others, have connected organophosphates with brain damage in children and fetuses. Studies have identified statistically significant reductions in IQ, loss of working memory, autism, attention deficit disorder, and motor coordination problems associated with exposure.
“Using [organophosphates] for locust control can present a health risk, especially for vulnerable groups like pregnant women and children,” said Helle Raun Andersen, associate professor at the University of Southern Denmark’s Institute of Public Health.