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BRAZIL: Lax Limits on Agrotoxics in Drinking Water

Mario Osava

CUIABÁ, Brazil, Jul 25 2011 (IPS) - Brazil sets acceptable drinking water limits for 22 different types of pesticides and fertilisers, 13 heavy metals, 13 solvents and six disinfectants. However, these are sometimes exceeded for economic reasons or due to inadequate monitoring.

Up to 1977, health authorities decreed that water for human consumption could not contain residues of more than 12 toxic agricultural chemicals or 10 metals, with no further details.

Since then the regulations have been updated twice, in 1990 and 2004, with amendments that have “legalised” residues of new chemical inputs used in agriculture and industry, complained Dr. Wanderlei Pignati, a professor at the Federal University of Mato Grosso (UFMT).

The European Union, in contrast, only permits five agrotoxics, with maximum limits that are lower than the concentrations allowed in Brazil, and a total allowable concentration of pesticides that prevents all the individual agrotoxics from reaching their maximum tolerated level, a precaution that is not applied in Brazil.

Quality control of drinking water is still focused on eliminating bacteria, and does not take into account the increase in chemical contaminants, which require “expensive and sophisticated” equipment and complex measurement procedures, said Pignati, who has a national reputation for research and combating what is regarded as the abuse of toxic agricultural chemicals.

Three years ago, Brazil became the world’s top consumer of chemical pesticides for agricultural use, in spite of producing, for example, less than one-third of the grain produced in the United States. This is the price the country pays for its leadership role in tropical agriculture, achieved in recent decades, which allowed it to export 76 billion dollars’ worth of agricultural commodities last year.

Brazil’s economic success story is the result of heavy agricultural research and the intensive use of fertilisers, insecticides, herbicides and fungicides, as well as the introduction of extensive monoculture farming, especially of soy which has become the main export product, greatly exceeding traditional coffee and sugar exports.

The state of Mato Grosso, in the centre-west of the country and bordering Amazonas state, to the northwest, exemplifies this transformation, having become the country’s main soy producer and, therefore, the largest consumer of “crop protection products” for agriculture, as most farmers call pesticides.

Local large-scale producers have expanded the area under soy, often by deforestation, and have also intensified agrotoxin use. “Ten years ago they were using eight litres (of pesticides) on one hectare of soy, but nowadays they use 10 litres,” Pignati said.

“Agrotoxics are a legal drug, like alcohol and tobacco,” he told IPS.

Brazil’s agricultural development model encourages the use of pesticides by granting them sales tax exemption, although medicines are not exempt – an example of inverted priorities, to the detriment of health, the doctor said.

Pignati, an activist in the Permanent Campaign against Pesticides and for Life that was launched in Mato Grosso in early June, has devoted himself to researching the issue and getting the word out ever since he arrived at the conclusion that dealing with the causes of illness is more efficient than training doctors to treat individual patients. At his university, he joined the Institute of Collective Health.

In Mato Grosso, close to 150 million litres of agrotoxics are used every year, equivalent to 50 litres per person, compared to a national average of 5.2 litres per person, according to Pignati. Inevitably, surface waters have become polluted in a state that is the source of thousands of rivers that flow into the Río de la Plata basin and four other basins that drain into the Amazon river, he said.

Treatment procedures to make water fit for human consumption date from “100 years ago,” and aim to remove contaminants by decantation; however, many chemicals are not removed by this method and remain in solution in water, he said. Their effects persist for decades and can cause not only diarrhoea, but also cancer and neurological, endocrinological and psychiatric complaints.

The role of pesticides in “endocrine disruption” – interference with normal hormonal function – is a recent concern, and a rise in the incidence of diabetes, hypothyroidism and other disorders is raising alarm, the doctor said.

Health risks in Brazil are growing because of the use of agrotoxics that have long been banned in other countries, particularly in Europe. One high-profile case is that of Endosulfan, an insecticide that causes fatal poisoning, abortion, foetal malformation and damage to the nervous and immune systems.

A 2010 government resolution decreed its gradual phasing out in Brazil. Endosulfan will only be completely banned in 2013, and for the next two years the use of 14 million and eight million litres, respectively, will be allowed. Another 13 products are being re-evaluated by the National Health Surveillance Agency (ANVISA).

Aerial spraying of crops aggravates contamination of human beings, water and animal and plant species because of uncontrolled drift, and is therefore a priority target for environmentalists.

In March 2006, a “pesticide shower” from a crop-duster plane rained on Lucas do Rio Verde, a town of 45,000 people in northern Mato Grosso that is surrounded by soy crops at one season and maize and cotton at another. Its poisonous effects on many people, animals and vegetable gardens drew condemnation and triggered widespread debate.

A study by Danielly Palma, supervised by Pignati, made a great impact when it was published in March this year. It identified traces of pesticide in the breastmilk of 62 women examined in Lucas do Rio Verde in 2010. All of the mothers had DDE, which results from the breakdown of DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloro-ethane), and 44 percent had Endosulfan in breastmilk.

But these criticisms and research results are downplayed by political leaders from the world of agribusiness.

Comparison with Europe is inappropriate because conditions are so different, they say. Brazilian farmers follow the rules laid down by ANVISA, the Health Ministry regulatory body, said Seneri Paludo, the head of the Mato Grosso Agricultural Federation (FAMATO).

Per capita pesticide consumption is not a legitimate measure for comparison purposes, either, Paludo argued.

Farmers tend to apply “doses lower than necessary, which sometimes worsens pest damage,” because agrotoxics drive up costs, he said. Their willingness to protect the environment is proved by the fact that Mato Grosso leads the country in collecting used agrochemical containers, he added.

For his part, Edu Pascoski, the Agriculture and Enviroment secretary for Lucas do Rio Verde, argued that the pesticide residues found in his municipality’s investigations “were within acceptable limits” fixed by ANVISA.

He also pointed out that DDT and DDE can persist in human beings for more than 60 years, so Palma’s study results might reflect the use of the product long before it was banned in 1998.

However, if “abuses in the use of agrochemicals” were ever verified, they would be due to permission granted by national authorities, Pascoski said, after stating that his town’s environmental performance is strong, because it practises constant monitoring of drinking water quality, protects and restores conservation areas and has abundant vegetation.

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