A new study has revealed that most of the tomatoes being consumed in Uganda are poisonous because they are contaminated with deadly pesticides.
It should be noted that over the years, the volume of pesticides imported into Uganda has sharply risen as Climate Change pounds the country, with the emergence of pests like the Fall Army Worms and others exacerbating the problem. Available data indicates that the importation of pesticides into Uganda is on a significant rise, yet it comes along with various health risks for both farmers and consumers.
The study conducted by the Uganda National Association of Community and Occupational Health (UNACOH), was carried out in 18 districts under its Pesticide Use, Health, and Environment Project, and was implemented in collaboration with Diálogos, a Danish voluntary organization working to promote health in poor countries.
The researchers conducted the study in the following districts; Kampala, Sembabule, Wakiso, Kayunga, Rakai, Bushenyi, Ntungamo, Kamwenge, Masindi, Nebbi, Adjumani, Kitgum, Gulu, Kapchorwa, Kumi, Pallisa, Budaka and Bugiri.
The scientists, who discovered that there are contaminated tomatoes in all the sample districts, observed that unless regulated fast enough, the problem of misuse of pesticides is a ticking time bomb for Uganda that is likely to result in sporadic cancer infections across the country.
During their study, the scientists led by Dr. Deogratious Ssekimpi, the Executive Director (UNACOH), randomly bought tomatoes from market vendors and farms, which were taken to the Directorate of Government Analytical Laboratory (DGAL), for analysis for the presence of pesticide residues.
Contamination Peaks in June
The study discovered that contamination is highest at the end of June and beginning of July.
According to Dr. Ssekimpi, results from the scientific analyses indicate that the number of tomatoes contaminated with harmful pesticide residues gets worse at the end of June as the first cropping season March– June nears its end.
On asking farmers why they sell contaminated tomatoes, Dr. Ssekimpi says that vendors in all the sampled markets said they sell tomatoes containing visible pesticide residues because the contaminants, especially Mancozeb, increase the shelf life of the tomatoes by hardening their outer skin, thereby reducing their perishability.
Dr. Ssekimpi says; “Some farmers told us they spray their crops even on the day they are going to sell them so as to make them attractive. Despite some consumers knowing that the pesticide residues are harmful to their health, they still buy the contaminated tomatoes due to lack of alternatives.”
Contaminated Water Sources
Dr. Ssekimpi notes that the study also discovered a very worrying trend of Community water source pollution with harmful pesticide residues, which is brought about by poor handling of pesticides by farmers.
“When it comes to water sources, the number of contaminants increases from seven in April to more than 23 different contaminants at the end of June, due to increased use of pesticides and herbicides,” Dr. Ssekimpi observes.
Talking about the same matter, Aggrey Atuhaire, the Coordinator of Pesticide Use, Health and Environment Project at UNACOH, says they collected samples from 86 water sources in the above districts and during their study they established that up to 94% of them were contaminated with at least one detectable concentration of a pesticide residue at the beginning of April and end of June.
According to the scientists, the contamination in water sources is as a result of poor disposal of pesticide containers, spraying near water sources or washing sprayers in community water sources, although at times the contaminants are washed into these sources by rainwater.
Atuhaire says that “The greatest concern to experts is that some of the farmers spray without wearing protective gear even in the presence of children, which exposes both the young and adults to deadly health risks.”
He adds that “Worse still is that the contaminations in tomatoes are scary when compared to recommended international standards for human consumption and the environment, hence the lives of many Ugandans are at risk.”
According to Atuhaire, the easiest measure to mitigate this contamination from harmful pesticides is by peeling the outer skin of the tomatoes and washing in warm water instead of cold water before cooking or eating them raw.
Contamination from Homes and Health Centers
Besides the contamination of tomatoes and water sources, the researchers also carried out a study to establish pesticide poisoning levels from homes and related registration in health centers where victims go for medical attention.
They observed that several farmers poorly store their agrochemicals, whereby some keep them around food and in places easily accessible to children, which endangers their lives.
Occupational Health Specialist Victoria Nabankema, who was part of the study, says; “We saw that children are accidentally poisoned while some adults unintentionally use the chemicals for committing suicide. Unfortunately, the current Ministry of Health Data Capture system does not clearly capture acute pesticide poisoning as a major community health concern.”
On his part, Prof. Erik Joers, a Clinical Expert in Occupational Medicine at the University of Southern Denmark, warned that there are multiple risks associated with using agrochemicals including fertility problems, respiratory problems, affecting the development of the fetus during pregnancy, development of various cancer strains, hormonal imbalance, etc.
Farmers Misuse Agrochemicals
The study also discovered that there is a high level of misusing agrochemicals among farmers.
According to John Mwanje, the Acting Commissioner for Agro Chemicals at the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries (MAAIF) there is global concern over the increase in cases of Cancer-causing Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) associated with misuse of agrochemicals around the World, hence the Ministry ought to strengthen its regulation of the chemicals.
Mwanje says; “We have available data on agrochemical use in Uganda. We know that some of the Chemicals are fake. They enter the country through illicit pathways at porous borders. Despite some others being genuine, we would like to use extension workers to sensitize people about the dangers of misusing pesticides, insecticides, rodenticides, and other agrochemicals.”