Spraying potatoes: health risk for potato farmers

Walking through poison


High in the Andes, BBC reporter Euan McIlwraith meets a man spraying his potatoes. He has no protective equipment. His hands and shoulders are wet from the cocktail of pesticides he carries in his back-pack sprayer.

These products are categorised by their toxicity. The most dangerous carry a red warning label. In this region of Ecuador, 90% of all the pesticides bought are red label products.

Many die

The doctor at the local hospital says he sees the results of acute pesticide poisoning every day. People are admitted with stomach cramps, blinding headaches, serious skin diseases, and tunnel vision. The most serious cases have kidney failure, or have taken an overdose of pesticide. Many die.

The statistics do not reveal the thousands of cases of dizziness, nausea or memory loss which are not referred for medical help - nor the cases of cancer, depression or fertility problems which have been linked to certain chemicals.

Researchers in this area of Ecuador say farmers, their wives and children are all at risk, and six out of ten will have suffered nerve damage due to pesticide exposure.

Pesticide salesman

One of the biggest problems is lack of knowledge about pesticides and how they should be used. In a small corner store, a shopkeeper offers to sell Euan one of the most common red label products used in Ecuador - liquid carbofuran. He says he can supply it to anyone, including children.

When he is pressed to say why he does not sell less hazardous products, he explains it's all a matter of demand. Farmers want the strongest pesticides possible, and they do not buy the alternative products.

Most farmers and pesticide suppliers will have had no formal training about these highly hazardous substances. Researchers and campaigners say the challenge is to get information down to the grassroots as quickly as possible.