NAIROBI, Kenya — The world's poorer countries, desperate for more crops, are spraying pesticides at dangerous new levels, killing people by the tens of thousands and poisoning environments.
Despite new international guidelines, pesticides outlawed in the United States and Europe are sold aggressively throughout the Third World to farmers untrained in their use.
"It is going to get worse," said Thomas Odhiambo, director of the International Center of Insect Physiology and Ecology in Nairobi. "Unless we develop a strategy, this will be with us forever."
Odhiambo, chairman of the African Academy of Sciences, and other specialists, farmers and officials in developed and developing countries say:
- Misused poisons are stimulating pests they are meant to kill, creating resistances and new threats that spur an even greater use of more potent chemicals.
- Harmful effects reach consumers in developed countries, widening what U.S. researcher David Weir identified as "a circle of poison."
- The spreading ecological damage is worldwide, with traces of banned chemicals in Antarctic snowfields and Alpine lakes. Some soils are losing productivity and ground water is increasingly polluted.
- Overuse of DDT, malathion and other pesticides are rendering malarial mosquitoes invulnerable in some tropical climates.
- Although world attention focused on 2,347 Indians killed in 1984 at Union Carbide's plant in Bhopal, many thousands more die unnoticed at backyard factories all over the Third World.
"The argument is that pesticides are essential to protect food supplies," said David Bull, a British specialist. "But we are creating even greater problems for the future."
Major producers now sell $18 billion worth of pesticides a year, a fifth of them to the Third World. In addition, local factories make huge quantities of DDT and other chemicals.
West Germans export the most, but Swiss, British, American, French, Japanese and Dutch manufacturers also sell widely in developing countries.
"Companies say they apply rigid controls," said Michael Hansen, a scientist with the Consumers Union in Mount Vernon, N.Y. "But that's not what you see in the field."
To increase profits, he said, producers encourage chemical use far beyond what is safe or effective, resulting in a "pesticides treadmill" with steadily more serious consequences.
Odhiambo blames a well-organized chemical lobby in Europe and the United States, assisted by official foreign aid programs and some United Nations agencies, for encouraging sales despite the risk to users.
"Some of them are not very honest," he said. "They tell us: 'Since you are poor, you should accept it. It's not that bad." '
Industry executives acknowledge that although they may seek to control misuse of their chemicals, Third World conditions make accidents and side effects all but inevitable.
U.N., governmental and voluntary guidelines prescribe elaborate controls and warnings, but energetic local salesmen --often paid by commission--push their products with abandon.
Third World nations, with agriculture as their main hope to escape crushing debt, rely ever more heavily on pesticides. Many use paraquat and other toxic defoliants to clear new land.
William Hollis of the National Agricultural Chemicals Assn. in Washington agrees that some producers are lax in policing their local agents because of greater profits generated.
"They're blinking dollar signs," he said.
Most companies press hard to improve the image of pesticides but find independent distributors and pirate producers beyond their control, Hollis said.
Outdated World Health Organization estimates say 500,000 people a year are poisoned by pesticides, and 10,000 of them die. Privately, WHO experts say the figures are now at least double that.
And some specialists say actual figures may be far higher and are mounting fast.
Michael Loevensohn, in the prestigious British medical journal Lancet, found a 27% increase in deaths among Philippine rice farmers during a period of high pesticide use.
He estimates that tens of thousands of farmers were dying each year in Southeast Asia alone. As a result, he said, accepted worldwide figures seemed to be "substantially underestimated."
Pesticide deaths are often slow and misreported. Poisoning, if not fatal, can cripple for life. Little is known about cancer risks or long-term effects on nervous systems, fertility and immune systems.
Isolated studies across the Third World suggest an alarming picture.
A Kenyan scientist recently found mothers' milk with DDT levels 300 times above accepted international norms. "I found no milk without DDT," said Laetitia Kanja, "including my own."
Western authorities banned DDT because it remained undeteriorated in the food chain, threatening predator birds, among other species.
"Here we have so many other priorities," said one Kenyan scientist. "If you are hungry, you don't mind eating a little DDT."