Most Residents of Laos’ Xiangkhouang Province Contaminated by Agricultural Chemicals: Officials

laos-maize-farmer-1997.jpg A farmer plants maize by hand near Sam Neua, Laos, in a file photo.
AP Photo

The majority of residents of northeast Laos’ Xiangkhouang province likely contain residue from pesticides or herbicides in their blood, officials confirmed recently, adding that further tests are needed to determine the level of contamination that has affected the public.

In January, the Lao Upland Rural Advisory Service (Luras)— a non-government organization (NGO) under Swiss aid group Helvetas—published a report which said preliminary tests had found contaminant residue in the blood of 96 percent of Xiangkhouang residents.

Luras’s findings showed that 960 out of 1,000 people tested in July 2017 had some level of residue in their system from pesticides or herbicides—nearly 50 percent of whom are consumers of market produce.

Speaking to RFA’s Lao Service last week, a Ministry of Public Health Food and Drug Department official, Soubin Phimmahthut, said that additional testing is needed to conclude how much contamination Xiangkhouang residents have been exposed to.

“We have sampled blood in the first stage through test-kits [in the field] to verify whether or not contamination exists,” he said.

“But we still don’t know what level of residue is there, so we will need to undertake further tests in the lab.”

According to the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, more than 100 metric tons of pesticides and herbicides—including Cypermethrin, Carbaryl, Glyphosate, Atrazine, Paraquat, and Metsulfuron—were imported into Xiangkhouang’s Nonghad and Kham districts alone between 2004 and 2015 as part of a bid to improve the commercial yield of the province’s 20,000 hectares (49,400 acres) of maize.

“The chemical substances … were mainly used in maize cultivation, and less applied for other crops,” Ianlang Phanthanivong, head of the crops division for Xiangkhouang’s Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, told RFA.
Ianlang said that officials from his ministry had recently tested 600 samples of fruits and vegetables from local farmers and markets throughout Xiangkhouang’s seven districts and found more than half of them to be contaminated by pesticides and herbicides.

“The reality is that the residue [in residents’ blood] comes from consumption—not from the use of pesticides and herbicides directly,” he said.

“The main factor is that people consume contaminated vegetables, fruits, meat, fish and other foods that are locally produced and distributed.”

According to Ianlang, provincial authorities have launched a campaign providing support to regional farmers in cultivating crops without the use of chemical substances.

“We are working to support crop cultivation without chemical substances—meaning organic agriculture with locally available compost, and clean agriculture production with the use of chemical substances that can be controlled,” he said.

National issue

The bid to end pesticide and herbicide contamination in Xiangkhouang follows the Lao government’s passage of a law to control the use of chemical substances and a decree by Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith limiting the use of pesticides and herbicides in November 2016 and August 2017, respectively.

Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Forestry Bounkhouang Khambounheuang told RFA that the government had worked to implement the decree on the control of pesticides and herbicides throughout the country’s target provinces.

“This is to promote good agriculture practices, and we have sent the list of all prohibited pesticides and herbicides to the relevant provincial departments so that they can be controlled,” he said.

“We are currently monitoring all pesticides and herbicides, and have completely prohibited those lacking certificates of safety standards. In particular, Paraquat—which is prohibited globally—is not allowed to be imported to Laos.”

In 2016, the Ministry of Public Health took blood samples from 700 students and teachers throughout the country and found that nearly half tested positive for residue from pesticides or herbicides at levels considered “unacceptable” or “dangerous.”

That same year, the ministry took blood samples from 400 secondary students and teachers in the capital Vientiane and found that 58 percent of those tested showed residue at the same levels.

The ministry said at the time that the use of pesticides and herbicides in Laos had increased by around 200 percent over the previous decade as local farmers worked to increase crop production to commercial levels.

It expressed concern that the substances posed a serious danger to the brain development of the country’s children, noting that consumers are more likely to be affected by contamination than the farmer who use them.

Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.


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