Nelly Bassily | May 26, 2008
Sacks of stored beans are a welcome sight during the dry season – a source of nutritious meals to enjoy while next season’s crops are growing. But recent reports of poisoned beans in parts of Nigeria were a grim reminder that stored food that has been treated with unsafe pesticides can cause illness and even death.On an April day in Gombe State, students at the Government Girls Secondary School sat down to a meal of beans. The girls became ill almost immediately, suffering from vomiting and diarrhoea. More than 100 students were rushed to hospital. Fortunately, they all recovered.
The beans were tested by the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control, or NAFDAC, and found to contain high levels of a potentially fatal insecticide. The chemical lindane, also known as Gammalin and many other brand names, was apparently used to protect the beans against pest attack. Lindane is a neurotoxin and possible carcinogen that has been banned in 50 countries.
While the poisonings at the girls’ school were widely reported in the Nigerian media, another outbreak took place in the Bekwarra area of Cross River State around the same time. According to NAFDAC, more than 100 people were hospitalized after eating beans and moi-moi, a steamed bean cake. It was reported that two children died. Again, lab tests were conducted on the food. The beans from homes and markets contained high levels of several highly toxic pesticides.
NAFDAC has responded by banning more than 30 agrochemical products, including lindane. The organization also plans to hold workshops on the safe use of food-preserving pesticides, in conjunction with CropLife, a group that represents pesticide companies.
William Joseph is the Director of Research at the Nigerian Stored Produce Research Institute. He says that many Nigerian farmers will pour any storage chemicals they can find onto their produce. Mr. Joseph suggests that most farmers do not differentiate between pesticides designed for use in the fields, and those designed for food storage. Food storage pesticides are generally designed to last longer and are typically safe for consumption in minute amounts.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization also stresses the importance of using the correct product for the job. When choosing a pesticide, farmers should consult a trusted source such as a government extension officer or known NGO. Farmers should then look for a well-packaged product from a reputable dealer – if a chemical comes with a counterfeit label or in a leaky package, its contents can’t be trusted.
The next step is to carefully follow package directions to ensure that the pesticide will be effective against the pest in question, but not poisonous to future consumers. The FAO notes that storage pesticides in powdered form are generally the most suitable for small-scale farmers. Gloves and a mask or handkerchief must be worn for protection when applying the product.