SEATTLE, Washington — Every year, about 150,000 people around the world commit suicide with highly hazardous pesticides (HHPs). Considering that 800,000 people around the world commit suicide every year, the scale of this problem is apparent: at least 20% of all suicides occur with pesticides. This method of suicide is especially common in developing countries in Southeast Asia and Africa, where highly hazardous pesticides (HHPs) are readily available and insufficiently regulated.
The high rates of suicide in these regions are the result of a range of issues including abject poverty. While resolving these issues would require a comprehensive list of complex solutions, there is a relatively simple, immediately achievable approach that could drastically reduce suicide deaths worldwide: a ban on highly hazardous pesticides.
Why HHPs are a Problem
HHPs are a health risk, both for people and the environment. In a recent email, Leah Utyasheva and Michael Eddleston of the Scotland-based nonprofit Centre for Pesticide Suicide Prevention (CPSP) told The Borgen Project that the “Introduction of (HHPS) into poor rural communities in the 1950s and 60s without the resources to support their safe use resulted in a rapid increase in number of accidental, occupational and suicidal poisoning deaths. Over 14 million people have died in these communities from suicide using pesticides and hundreds of thousands have likely died from occupational and accidental poisoning.”
The ready availability of highly hazardous pesticides is a problem because they are so lethal, and research shows that most people who survive unsuccessful suicide attempts are unlikely to try again. According to Utyasheva and Eddleston, “Means restriction works because suicidal impulses are usually transient, lasting only minutes or hours. The easy accessibility of lethal means, such as guns or HHPs, during these periods, can make the difference between survival and death.”
Beyond the issue of suicide, HHPs endanger peoples’ health in multiple ways, including accidental poisonings and food contamination. They are a threat to the environment as well because they undermine biodiversity, destroy pollinators and pollute the overall environment.
Since its founding in 2017, the Centre for Pesticide Suicide Prevention has led a growing movement in favor of banning HHPs. The Centre pointed to the impressive results in Sri Lanka involving the banning of a number of HHPs in 1995, and more in 1998.
According to Eddleston and Utyasheva, “Pesticide bans in Sri Lanka led to a dramatic fall in the total number of suicides and reduced the national suicide rate by more than 70% over 20 years, saving an estimated 93,000 lives at a direct government cost of less than 50 USD per life saved.”
The CPSP is currently working in India, Nepal, Taiwan, Malaysia and South Africa to encourage governments to learn from Sri Lanka’s success. So far, the Centre’s work has played a role in new HHP bans that Taiwan enacted in 2018 as well as other countries like India and Nepal.
Highly hazardous pesticide bans are a seemingly straightforward proposition that could save hundreds of thousands of lives a year. So, why are they not common practice?
According to the CPSP, “The biggest obstacle is probably a common belief that pesticide use, and even HHP use, is essential for agriculture. And that banning pesticides will harm agriculture.” This is a misconception, however, because, as the organization pointed out, “…bans of highly toxic HHPs in parts of Asia have not shown any negative effect on agriculture.”
Another obstacle is that many low-income countries lack data about the problem. Highly hazardous pesticides are primarily a problem in lower-income countries, where poor record-keeping often makes it difficult to establish which pesticides are the most harmful.
In countries like India, there is also routine underreporting of suicides, due to strong cultural stigmas against suicide and acknowledgment of mental health problems in general. This underreporting misrepresents the scale of the problem and can lead government officials to deprioritize pesticide bans.
The Centre actively involves itself in data collection to establish which pesticides are the most harmful in each country because it believes that more data will reveal the true urgency of pesticide suicides. It also has the belief that this will help enable more effective pesticide regulations.
COVID-19 is Making the Problem Worse
According to the CPSP, the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic consequences have made the suicide crisis even worse. “Our partners in India and Nepal report that at the time of the pandemic lockdowns many farmers were unable to sell their produce,” the Centre told The Borgen Project. “The pandemic exacerbated mental health problems and led to many families worrying about their financial future, raising suicide rates by at least 25%.”
According to Centre representatives, the pandemic has both interrupted their work and increased their urgency. They have adapted to the pandemic by shifting to remote operations for at least the next year.
The Future is Bright
Utyasheva and Eddleston feel confident that the momentum behind the movement to ban HHPs is growing. Determining their goals moving forward, they said that “In five years, we hope to have helped this number fall by more than 30% and [working]with partners to have put in place processes that lead to a 90% fall in pesticide suicides within 10 years.”
Pesticide suicides are a crisis on a massive scale, taking hundreds of thousands of lives each year. While highly hazardous pesticide bans do face some logistical challenges, the results would be well worth it. The massive success of the bans in Sri Lanka, which have saved almost 100,000 lives at a low cost to the government and with no negative impact on agricultural production, offers concrete proof for the efficacy of these bans.
It is rare for such a severe crisis to have such a clear-cut, proven solution. With nonprofits like the Centre for Pesticide Suicide Prevention hard at work, the next decade could see a complete end to suicides by highly hazardous pesticides.
– Dylan Weir