By Chela Vázquez
Once again Cameron Highlands in Malaysia takes the stage for the dubious honor of being a highly polluted place. Here, vegetables are grown for export and for internal consumption across the country and overseas markets, raising concerns about the safety of the food produced and consumed in Malaysia.
Researchers from University Kebangsaan Malaysia over a 5-month study, August-December 2014, in Cameron Highlands of the surface waters of two rivers, Bertam and Terla, and tap water in the town of Brinchang, have found residues of highly toxic organochlorine pesticides (OCs). These results were presented at a seminar with government officials and the general public in Cameron Highlands on March 6, 2015. A local organization, REACH, and Pesticide Action Network Asia Pacific co-hosted the event.
Potential Health Impacts
“The people of Cameron Highlands have the right to know about poisons present in the water they drink. Furthermore, consumers in Malaysia must know about pesticide residues found in their food” said Sarojeni Rengam from PAN Asia Pacific.
The highly toxic pesticide residues found on surface water and in the drinking water of pipes, sends alarming signals about the long-term human health impact in Brinchang and other towns which depend on the same sources for drinking water.
OCs have affinity for fat tissue and are found in most living organisms. Their ability to adhere to soil particles and affinity to fat tissue facilitate their long-range transport across the globe. They are infamous for their presence in places where they have never been produced nor used. In pristine environments like the Arctic, even the polar bears have OCs in their bodies, and breastmilk of indigenous women in Alaska contain OC concentrations that are among the highest in the world.
OC chemicals are known for their adverse health impact at low dose of exposure over log periods of time because they bioaccumulate inside living organisms. They are known endocrine disruptors, capable of mimicking hormones such as estrogen. In lab animals and wildlife exposed to OC chemicals, birth defects, behavioral abnormalities, impaired fertility have been observed in the offspring of parents exposed to these chemicals, indicating hormonal disruption during prenatal development.
Most of the pesticide residues were breakdown products belonging to the insecticides endosulfan, aldrin, methoxychlor, eldrin, lindane, DDT, and heptachlor oxide, which have been banned in Malaysia years ago. OC chemicals are persistent and adhere to soil particles, therefore their presence in water might originate from their leaching out of the soil. However, the presence of undegraded endosulfan II in water, suggests application of this insecticide on agricultural fields around a year ago.
At the meeting in Cameron Highlands, Mr. Rama from REACH, presented to the press several illegal pesticides, that ranged from labels in foreign language, repackaged pesticides sold in bags with poor labeling, and methomyl, an insecticide classified by the World Health Organization as class 1 because of its high toxicity. Methomyl has never been registered in Malaysia.
This study only measured OC pesticides in water. It did not test for the presence of organophophorus compounds, carbamates, pyrethroids, fungicides, and toxic herbicides, which are also known to be in high use in Cameron Highlands.
Further Research and Action are needed
The OC findings in Cameron Highlands’ waters point to the need to obtain more information on the presence of pesticide residues in water and also on food. This would be an exercise on the public Right to Know on matters that affect their health and particularly the development of young children.
Regarding the presence of illegal toxic pesticides, it calls for urgent action to prevent further poisoning the environment and endangering human health. Additionally, monitoring of human health, particularly of agricultural workers and farmers is needed. Finally, implementing policies to assist farmers to move towards safer ecological methods in agriculture, free of toxic chemicals, would be crucial to protect human health and the environment.