DOHA—As many countries in the Middle East confront the issue of food security by growing more of their own crops, farm workers who handle pesticides are being exposed to more health risks.
“I was surprised how many farms there are in Qatar,” says Jerome Nriagu, a professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan in the United States. “They’re farmed by workers who are brought into the country and no one really follows what happens to them. It’s a truly ignored area.”
“Farmer workers in Qatar usually have a limited amount of education and awareness of the risks, so pesticides are often misused and mishandled,” explains Khalid Al-Saad, an associate professor of analytical chemistry at Qatar University.
Nriagu and Al-Saad collaborated on a research project to gauge the degree of exposure among farm workers in Qatar to organophosphate chemicals as a result of treating crops with pesticides. The study shows how researchers at Arab universities can do research of local importance that also connects with global issues.
They interviewed and gave questionnaires to 200 agricultural laborers. They asked the workers how they use pesticides and whether they have any health problems. “Less than 2 percent of farm workers knew the names of the pesticides they were using,” says Al-Saad, “About one-third did not know the amount of pesticides to be applied.”
Only 29 percent used protective equipment and clothing when spreading pesticides.
“There is no doubt that the practice is very similar in other Gulf countries where they bring in workers,” says Nriagu.
Pesticide use is generally high throughout the Arab world. Conventional agriculture that relies heavily on chemicals to control pest populations is the norm, and biological control that uses natural predators is the exception.
In addition to the surveys, the pair also measured the metabolites in urine samples from the farm workers.
The laborers were found to have higher concentrations of organophosphates compared to the general population. Still, the exposure levels were in line with and even below that of farmers in some other countries, such as Mexico.
Other experts aren’t surprised by Nriagu and Al-Saad’s findings. “Exposure to pesticides is extremely common globally, in particular in developing economies,” says Lynn Frewer, a professor of food and society at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom.
She adds that other previous studies have also highlighted that the safety culture surrounding pesticide use is extremely lax in countries like Qatar, noting that there is substantial evidence that training isn’t made available and protective clothing is often not used.
But that’s not to say that countries with well-developed agricultural industries are perfect.
“Even in regions where substantial regulation is enforced, such as Europe, illegal or migrant workers are often excluded,” says Frewer. “They either fall below the regulatory radar, or the nationally developed training materials are not in their language,” so they do not benefit from them.
But the study’s results are still concerning for farm workers in Qatar and the rest of the region—birth defects and neurological problems such as Parkinson’s disease could be more likely to occur as a result of overexposure to pesticides, says Frewer.
Frewer says many of the potential health concerns are chronic, occurring over time.
Nriagu agrees: “I wouldn’t dismiss it just because the effect isn’t immediate. We need to keep looking at this over a longer period of time.” Long-term exposure has also been linked to cancer. Some studies show a correlation between organophosphate pesticides and lymphoma and leukemia, although this has not been definitively proven.
“Our results are a cause for concern,” insists Nriagu.
Most of the farm workers included in the study come from Bangladesh, followed by Nepal and Pakistan. It wasn’t easy to get them to participate, says Al-Saad. Language was an initial barrier, but that was resolved with translators. More of a problem was their fear of upsetting the farm owners.
“They seemed intimidated at first,” explains Al-Saad.
It took time to persuade them to answer the survey questions. “We were very kind to the supervisors,” says Nriagu. “We needed to gain their confidence. Normally they don’t allow you to interview their workers.” Part of the deal Al-Saad and Nriagu made was to guarantee the anonymity of both the individual laborers and the farms involved in the study.
The owners of the farm were almost always unaware that their workers were participating. “Once or twice the owner was present, and we were not so subtly told to leave immediately,” says Nriagu.
The persistence of pesticide exposure even in well-regulated Europe suggests that for the situation in Qatar to improve, more than just government guidelines are required. Frewer says more effective communication about the risks is needed to help reduce workers’ exposure to pesticides. If they don’t fully comprehend the risks they take when applying pesticides, they’re unlikely to take steps to reduce the danger, she says.