Wetenschap - 30 oktober 1997

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Health costs of flowers from Kenya
Just get rid of the blockage in the spray head by blowing. Spray against the wind so that your fellow worker gets covered from head to foot in pesticide. These are the kind of practices PhD student Grace Ohayo-Mitoko encountered in her research on occupational pesticide exposure among Kenyan agricultural workers. Pesticide use on the large Western owned plantations in Naivasha is highly dangerous
If you give a bunch of flowers to someone in Europe, you have to know for sure that it hasn't cost someone in Africa their life, says Grace Ohayo-Mitoko. At the moment we can't be certain. Last Tuesday, October 28, Ohayo-Mitoko was awarded a PhD for her research on occupational pesticide exposure among Kenyan agricultural workers
Ohayo-Mitoko carried out her research on farms of different sizes: from small-scale farmers with one to five acres of land upon which subsistence crops are grown with some cash crops such as cotton or tobacco in between. At the other extreme are plantations varying in size from 100 to 3,000 acres (400 to 12,000 hectares) employing thousands of workers in the Naivasha District
Empires
This is the area where rich Kenyans, multinationals, white Europeans and Americans have set up their large-scale flower growing empires. That the large-scale enterprises use far larger amounts of pesticide than the small-scale farmers is hardly surprising. Small-scale farmers simply cannot afford the pesticides and are very thrifty with the small amounts they do acquire. The carelessness with which farmers and agricultural workers use pesticides is both irresponsible and highly dangerous
Farmers keep pesticides under the bed or in a corner in the latrine. They use kitchen utensils to mix the stuff, and use of protective clothing such as gloves or overalls is almost unheard of. Ohayo-Mitoko: They don't know any better. The dangers of pesticides are grossly underestimated.
Toxicity
Conditions are better on the plantations. Pesticides are usually stored in safe places, there are facilities for washing or bathing and the workers are provided with protective clothing. Despite this Ohayo-Mitoko recorded higher levels of toxicity among workers on the large plantations than among small-scale farmers. She measured levels of the enzyme acetylcholinesterase in the blood, from a representative sample of workers. This enzyme plays an important role in switching off nervous impulses. Pesticides containing organophosphates and N-methyl carbamate inhibit the working of the enzyme, which leads to breathing difficulties, unconsciousness, lung oedema and ultimately death by suffocation. Both organophosphates and methyl carbamate are on the World Health Organisation's list of very toxic substances. Both types of chemicals are found in the top eight pesticides imported into Kenya. In the period 1989 to 1993 a total of 4,457 tons of organophosphate and 866 tons of carbamate were imported
Of the workers she examined, Ohayo-Mitoko found that small-scale farmers had smaller reductions in the level of acetylcholinesterase in their blood after spraying pesticides than workers on the plantations. This is because the large-scale flower growing enterprises use far more toxic, and more expensive, pesticides than the small scale farmers
In addition to this, they do shift work on the plantations so that production is quick and cheap. While one team is mixing up the pesticide the other team spends the whole day spraying in the field. The overalls they wear are made of cotton and get soaked with the pesticides. The overalls are usually tucked into rubber boots, so protective clothing actually becomes dangerous, according to Ohayo-Mitoko. Very often the workers take off their overalls after a while: plastic aprons and rubber boots are far too hot to work in. Most people don't know that absorption through the skin is the most important way in which poison gets into the body.
Positive
Education is of vital importance, believes Ohayo-Mitoko, but even so it is unclear whether that would induce sprayers to work more carefully and less hours. Pesticide spraying is a well paid job with status, and work is difficult to come by in Kenya. I think it will be difficult to get people to change their habits or give up their jobs.
The first thing we need to do is to decrease the amount of pesticides used, and ensure that only less toxic ones are allowed, says the researcher. The increasingly strict regulations set by the European market for flowers from Kenya and other developing countries are a help, although the growers themselves are not happy with them. Nevertheless Ohayo-Mitoko sees positive developments emerging out of the growing market pressure from Europe. A number of large-scale growers have already joined together and have set up self-legislation. They check up on each other regarding the environmental agreements they have made. Ohayo-Mitoko: A Dutch grower I met told me that he realises you can only produce a good crop if you look after your workers. He now has blood tests done every three years on his workers. Three years is not often enough, but at least it's a step in the right direction.
MSc quality control
Programme directors Kees Eveleens and Dick Legger want to improve the quality control of MSc courses. The results of course evaluations often do not reach the programme directors. In addition, the opinions of international MSc students are difficult to distinguish, as they are lumped together with those of the Dutch students. This means that programme directors have little idea of how international students feel about their education here
After talks with the Central Office of Research & Education, Dick Legger from Environmental Sciences has agreed that programme directors will make a list of the courses they would like to see evaluated. Kees Eveleens, Programme Director for Ecological Agriculture & Crop Science wants departing students to fill in a questionnaire concerning their opinions of the whole course they have followed. One of the subjects they would be asked about, for instance, is how they found the preparation for thesis work
Funding bodies such as Nuffic, want to know what students think of their courses. Up to now we didn't know what form a questionnaire should take, says Eveleens. Of course, it's also important for us to know what students think about the courses we are giving. The results will help us to make improvements in the programmes.

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