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By Sheree Béga
South Africa's medical and agricultural authorities are to embark on two separate studies to probe whether pesticides are poisoning the Limpopo farming community of Groblersdal.
This week, it emerged that the Medical Research Council, together with the University of Pretoria, is to run a human health study in Groblersdal, where physical abnormalities, including teenage boys temporarily developing breasts during the crop spraying seasons and a five-year-old girl with the breasts of a teenager, have been reported.
In another study, the Association of Veterinary and Crop Associations of SA (Avcasa), an industry body representing the crop protection sector, has contracted the Agricultural Research Council to determine the level of pesticide fallout in Groblersdal from aerial and ground-crop spraying.
And later this month, the department of agriculture will launch a pesticide safety campaign with farmers, government officials and communities to "avoid pesticide contamination of water, food and minimise exposure to pesticides by the public".
Last year, Groblersdal physician Johan Minnaar exposed what he believes are cases of toxic poisoning, including a five-year-old patient with the breasts of a teenager and several young boys temporarily developing breasts.
Other abnormalities include increased cancer rates, partial facial paralysis, miscarriages, ear infections as well as depression, asthma, migraines and dizziness.
The issue is of "great concern" to the department, it said this week. "We're aware of flashpoints such as Groblersdal and Riebeek Kasteel and south of Durban.
"Most of the abuse pertains to the use of outlawed pesticides and the negligent disposal of pesticide containers. This is exacerbated by farmers' failure to follow manufacturers instructions on the labels."
Minnaar has spent almost two years lobbying to regulate the use of pesticides and said a responsible pesticide campaign was long overdue.
Citrus, grapes and vegetables are farmed around Groblersdal. "It's difficult to pinpoint which chemicals. We're inhaling a cocktail of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides."
Gerhard Verdoorn, a consultant for Avcasa, said: "We're looking at the physical chemistry of the products and whether fallout of pesticides does occur in certain places We're looking at wind drift and whether the stuff accumulates in some parts of Groblersdal."
Verdoorn, a conservationist, is the former head of Birdlife SA and is now running the Griffon Poison Information Centre.
"We want to do sampling during the low season and in the high season when pesticides are applied either aerially or on the ground to see what the percentage of pesticide fallout is. We do believe there's going to be some fallout but we need to quantify it and see what the potential effect is on the environment and people's health.
"If we prove there is too much fallout, the farmers have said they'd like to know from us as an industry what to do to modify their applications to make sure they apply the pesticides to protect their crops but also protect their neighbours," he added.
Minnaar believes pesticides are drifting in from surrounding farms. "When there's a light wind blowing, you can smell the pesticides in town," he said, adding many of his patients have headaches, dizziness and chronic fatigue in the high crop-spraying season from August to November.
Several studies, he said, had shown that certain pesticides can lead to early puberty and other developmental abnormalities among children. After years of flu-like conditions at certain times of the year, Minnaar and his family have had their blood tested, which has revealed that exposure to organophosphates and carbamates, both widely used and linked to hormone changes, DNA mutations and birth defects, are lowering a key enzyme in their bodies.
"We've been monitoring our blood for the past 22 months to see the effect of organophosphates that we inhale in the area. It's shocking. It's like we're working alongside pesticides and we're not ... This is not an official experiment but you can see something is wrong," the doctor said.
Verdoorn, however, said Minnaar's allegations were not based on scientific evidence. "I'm sick of everyone jumping on the pesticide bandwagon We're not saying there isn't a slight problem in the area but to attribute every symptom to pesticide poisoning is rubbish If that's the case then everyone in town, plus the farmers and farm workers, will show the same symptoms."