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WHO declares two commonly used herbicides ‘carcinogenic’

WHO declares two commonly used herbicides ‘carcinogenic’

ISLAMABAD: The World Health Organisation (WHO) has reported that the use of a widely-used farm chemical causes cancer in humans.

The herbicide, known as 2,4-D, is a key ingredient in ‘Agent Orange’, a chemical agent used by the United States (US) in the Vietnam War. 2,4-D is also a key ingredient in herbicides used by farmers in Pakistan against weeds.

The classification of the herbicide, 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid, was made by the WHO International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in a statement issued in June 2015.

A senior official in the Pakistan Agriculture Research Council (PARC) confirmed the news, stating that the IARC had reviewed recent scientific literature and decided to classify 2,4-D as ‘possibly carcinogenic to humans’.

“The IARC’s findings have been long-awaited by environmental and consumer groups who have been lobbying to restrict the use of 2,4-D,” the official said, adding multinationals had been defending the use of 2,4-D as an important agent in food production and claiming that its use did not need stricter regulation.

In March this year, the IARC also found another popular herbicide, glyphosate, to be ‘probably carcinogenic to humans’. Despite being declared carcinogenic by the WHO, glyphosate remains a key ingredient in herbicide and other products used by farmers in Pakistan.

However, following the classification, some corporations and governments have moved to limit its use globally.

According to the PARC, weeds are a problem for fruit, wheat and maize farmers in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and parts of northern Punjab. 2,4-D kills weeds, thereby reducing the cost of water and fertilizer while increasing yields.

Both the ingredients have been used in Pakistan since before 1999. Existing documents show that the Cotton Research Institute (CRI) in Multan has been against the use of 2,4-D since 2000. The CRI maintains that the chemical is injurious to the cotton crop.

In 2002, the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Livestock allowed 2,4-D to be imported ‘for use in KP’.

The ministry directed that 2,4-D should only be imported after the cotton season, and that it should be transported in closed containers to be opened in KP only.

“The government feared that its fumes could damage cotton and other crops while it was being transported through cotton belts in Sindh and Punjab,” the PARC official said.

According to the official, the Environmental Protection Agency in the US approved a new version of a popular weed killer which is a cocktail of glyphosate and 2,4-D to be used on genetically modified corn and soybeans in October 2014. The measure was taken after almost 34 different types of weeds grew resistant to the chemicals previously used on genetically modified crops.

Published in Dawn, August 24th, 2015

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