ISLAMABAD, Dec 16: Pakistan’s cotton-picking women are exposed to chronic pesticide poisoning with symptoms ranging from mild headache and skin allergies to cancer of internal organs, a study shows.
Blood samples of 42 per cent women cotton-pickers after the last harvest season show amount of pesticides in their blood exceeding than the normal range.
Carried out by the Islamabad-based Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI), the study says that blood samples of only 10 per cent of the female cotton pickers were in the normal range after the harvesting season.
An estimated two million cotton-pickers harvest the cotton in three to five waves from August to February.
It is estimated that about 80 per cent of the total pesticides consumed in Pakistan are applied on the cotton crop. So, the most significant health risk the cotton-pickers face is their chronic exposure to pesticides spray which remained in their working environment.
“The cuts and skin rashes of cotton-pickers further expose them to the hazards of pesticides,” the study published in the SDPI research journal said.
It said that picking cotton was also common during pregnancy and breastfeeding, which posed additional risks to the health of women and their children.
The study said that pickers and their family members consumed water which was also contaminated with pesticides and these pesticides also entered the food chain because of exposure of soil and livestock to them and the cotton seeds that were processed to produce edible oil.
“Cotton stalks are also used as fuel wood in the cotton belt of the country. Residuals are thus inhaled by cotton-pickers and their communities. Equally hazardous effects of pesticide exposures have been found among farmers as well as non-farmers during research in southern Punjab,” the study said.
“This comes as no surprise that people living in a village often use water from the same wells for drinking situated in a nearby field.”
It also highlighted low wages of cotton-pickers and their exploitation by feudal lords, adding that wages of women cotton-pickers were lower than those of their male counterparts because men had other choices of work as well.
The extreme poverty in which women cotton-pickers lived compelled them to sell their labour as the only productive asset they possessed, it said.
“On an average, a fast picker can harvest 40kg of cotton in a day. In 1996-07, in southern Punjab a cotton-picker was paid Rs1 per kilogramme of cotton in southern Punjab, meaning thereby that a fast picker could earn only Rs40 a day.
“These wages saw an increase last year. And during the last picking season, Rs50 to 80 were paid to a labourer for picking 40kg cotton. But, benefit of this increase is offset by unbridled rise in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) between 2000-01 and 2005-06.
“Cotton-pickers are trapped in a vicious circle of poverty, fuelled by low wages they receive and the health hazards they are exposed to. The low wages are restricting pickers to buy and use such equipment which can protect them from harmful effects of pesticides,” it noted.
The study has called for implementation of the Agriculture Pesticide Rules, 1973, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation’s International Code of Conduct on the Distribution and Use of Pesticides and the 2005 National Environment Policy which promote and integrates pest management and discourages the use of agro chemicals.