It’s long been known, although not much discussed by entomologists, that pesticides are used as a means for suicide. Pesticide self-poisoning accounts for an estimated 300,000 deaths yearly in Asia – over a third of the world’s total suicides. In 2003, pesticides accounted for over 60% of suicides in China, in rural areas of Sri Lanka (71%), Trinidad (68%), and Malaysia (90%).
It’s a uniquely developing world problem, since powerful pesticides are generally strictly regulated elsewhere. There’s no evidence that people in developing countries are more suicidal–it’s just that when pesticides are used, lethal results are more common.
Past research found that while the age of those trying to kill themselves was similar to industrialized countries, fatality was 15 times higher in developing countries. We know that the majority of attempted suicides are people impulsively responding to stressful events. Often, given time, they might be just fine.
IF they don’t have access to powerful poisons.
The most toxic pesticides, organophosphates, are such powerful nerve toxins they quickly shut a person’s nervous system down. Organochlorines, DDT relatives, are nearly all listed as “informed consent” compounds–they are dangerous enough that warnings are issued to the country importing them.
An upcoming paper in The International Journal of Epidemiology provides new evidence that restricting imports of the most toxic groups of pesticides reduces suicide rates. (The impact of pesticide regulations on suicide in Sri Lanka. Gunnell et al., Int. J. Epidemiol. 2007.
Should we ban all dangerous pesticides? Yes and no. For some of these chemicals, there isn’t much reason for a subsistence farmer to be using them. I have no problem with banning them, and, more importantly, having a program to find and destroy remaining stocks.
A few compounds, though, are the last means of control for some pests. If they remain in use, strictly regulating those compounds is a must. Unfortunately, it seems that when you ban one dangerous pesticide, another one takes its place as a means for suicide.
Banning the very bad chemicals, regulating pesticide use, and mandating safe storage and usage—that would be a very good start. This new study is a little gleam of hope in a very depressing story.