Pesticide poisoning is affecting an increasing number of local children, thanks to street vendors unlawfully distributing pesticides of agricultural or industrial strength.
The increase over the past five years was confirmed by Dr Clare Roberts, of the Poison Centre at the Red Cross Children’s Hospital. She said the rise in the number of children presenting with pesticide poisoning symptoms coincided with illegal pesticides becoming freely available through street vendors.
The poisons, often available at taxi ranks and on trains, are sold for use in fighting rat and cockroach infestations, common in townships due to poor living conditions and sanitation.
Many are obtained in bulk, then packaged into smaller plastic bags or bottles. These packages are unmarked and their contents are not fit for domestic use.
Late last month, the national Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, together with City of Cape Town officials, raided informal retailers in Wynberg.
The city said this week that the raid had netted 473 sachets of a product call Green Leaf Cockroach Killing bait, as well as 127 packets of a fly bait made by the same company. A further 129 packets of illegal mothballs, 50 boxes of cockroach chalk and 24 unknown cockroach poisons were also found.
Agriculture department officials said any product or “agricultural remedy” that claimed to kill, control, repel, destroy or attract pests had to be registered with them. Those items confiscated were either not registered for uncontrolled use, or were illegally brought into the country, often from China.
Roberts said the Green Leaf products contained an organo- phosphate called acephate, which was “extremely potent and completely inappropriate for domestic use”.
Other illegal pesticides which the poison unit had encountered included a black granular substance called aldicarb, which is sold under the trade name Temik. It was intended for use as a crop spray, and its sales were usually closely monitored, but Roberts said bulk amounts were being brought into the country illegally, then packaged in small packages or straws and sold by vendors.
It is colloquially called “two step” – the number of steps an animal can take after having consumed the poison, before collapsing.
It has also recently been used in rhino poaching, with only a small amount required to kill an adult rhino.
“The granules are mixed with a food substance and placed on the floor for rats to eat. Toddlers between one and two are most at risk because they are so exploratory, and they are exploring on the same level where the pots of rat bait have been placed,” she said.
In addition, a white liquid called Chlorpyrifos, which is used as a rat and ant poison and which is also highly toxic, was often sold packaged in cooldrink and glass bottles. The liquid is also an organophosphate and when ingested by children, who often believe it to be milk, is highly toxic. It is a banned substance in SA.
Roberts said they also often received calls on account of children ingesting mothballs, mistaking them for sweets.
“Mothballs can make a toddler seriously ill,” she said, adding that a blood condition, more prevalent in mixed-race people such as the coloured community, could exacerbate symptoms.
Research into street pesticides conducted by UCT’s Dr Hanna-Andrea Rother found that children younger than three were most vulnerable to poisoning.
Her research, which looked at 60 children who were admitted to a Western Cape hospital between April 2008 and September 2009, found that in 68 percent of cases, street pesticides had been suspected.
What to do in an emergency
The Red Cross Children’s Hospital started a poisons information service in 1971, using index cards and textbooks. In 1984, the Poison Information Centre was launched.
It is now one of two 24-hour poison information lines open to the public in SA. The other is based at Tygerberg Hospital.
Dr Clare Roberts, from the Red Cross Poison Centre, said that in cases of suspected poisoning people could call either of these lines. But, in the case of children and toddlers, it was best to go to the hospital.
Many illegal street pesticides do not come in official packaging and, therefore, there may not be a list of ingredients. Many illegally imported brands also do not list their ingredients and warnings in English.
Roberts said it helped if parents knew what had caused the poisoning, or could bring the packaging.
Contact the Red Cross Poison Centre at 021 689 5227, or the Tygerberg Poison Centre at 021 931 6129.