Illegal pesticides cause cancer, health officials say

Health officials in Yemen say illegal pesticides used in the cultivation of khat [a mild narcotic popular in Yemen and the Horn of Africa], fruit and vegetables cause 16,000-17,000 cancer cases each year.

Nadeem Mohammed Sa’eed, director of the National Cancer Centre in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, said several pesticides were toxic and their prolonged use could cause serious diseases, including cancer.

“As a result of the use of pesticides for khat and vegetable cultivation, about 30 percent of Yemeni cancer patients have mouth and gum cancers. This is really a frightening figure and represents one of the world’s highest rates for mouth and gum cancers,” he said.

What is more worrying, according to Ahmed al-Haddad, head of community medicine at Sana’a University Medical College, is that 70 percent of pesticides used on khat are illegal and are smuggled into the country.

“The chewing of khat is one of the main causes of cancer of the digestive system and kidney failure and that it is partly due to the pesticides sprayed on khat plants," said Haddad.

Khat is very popular in Yemen, giving farmers a significant income and because of this, they use pesticides and fertilisers to make the plant grow faster, said Abdullah Baasher, chairman of the General Establishment for Agricultural Services.

During a session in December held by the Shoura (Consultative) Council, parliament’s upper chamber, to discuss the problem of the rampant use of pesticides and toxic chemicals, Agriculture Minister Jalal Faqirah said some of the pesticides, including DDT [high levels of which can affect the nervous system], lindane [lifelong exposure to which can cause liver and kidney damage], and methyl parathion [which can affect the central nervous system resulting in dizziness, headaches, breathing difficulties, vomiting, diarrhoea, tremors, blurred vision, sweating, and possibly death], were internationally banned and those who peddle them should be held accountable. Farm workers are most at risk, as are chemical sprayers, people who live near farms where methyl parathion is used and those who go into fields too soon after spraying.

Faqirah was responding to a report by the Agriculture, Fish and Water Committee of the Consultative Council, which criticised the lack of surveillance by the Ministry of Agriculture in the open market for various types of pesticides, including herbicides, insecticides and fungicides.

Faqirah said his ministry had tried to reduce the licences granted for imports of pesticides after the ministry discovered unlicensed pesticide stores in Sana’a.

"We are trying, in cooperation with the [Sana’a] city officials to free the city from pesticide and chemical shops," he said.

The council's report last November said there was brisk trade in pesticides and fertilisers because the code controlling them, which was issued in 1999, had not been enacted.

"I do not know why nothing concrete has been done to address this serious problem. The government has to be responsible in protecting the lives of the people from this horror of pesticides which are hazardous to human beings and the environment," Taleb al-Muhana, a member of the council, said.