Vulture poisoning in the Caprivi

In September a poisoning event in Caprivi resulted in the death of over 75 vultures. Through investigation a company, Bargain Building Supplies, was found to be selling 100ml bottles of a liquid pesticide. Whether or not this was the chemical that killed the birds, and potentially other animals, these bottles of repackaged chemicals were without labels and in flagrant disregard of human and environmental safety as well as national and international laws and regulations.
In Namibia, even though protection from chemicals for people and the environment is proffered by the Namibian constitution, the Environmental Management Act, the Hazardous Substances Ordinance, the Medicines and Related Substances, the Fertilizers, Farm Feeds, Agriculture and Stock Remedies Act and other relevant national and international laws, ongoing poisoning events occur. These events are certain amongst wildlife but mismanagement of chemical pesticides must surely also be implicated in some unexplained sudden illnesses, even death, in people. It remains obvious that the various laws cannot alone provide security for safety of people and the environment.

In the Ministry of Agriculture Water and Forestry (MAWF), Directorate Extension and Engineering Services, the Registrar is responsible for registration and deregistration of pesticides. Because of the hazardous nature of all pesticides, including those that are called “organic”, there exists a stringent set of regulations that must be followed for any activity involving these chemicals. These regulations, concerning packaging, labeling transport, storage and sales, fulfill the requirements of the Fertilizers, Farm Feeds, Agriculture and Stock Remedies Act 36 of 1947. Working with the MAWF Registrar is an inspectorate division. Inspectors have permission to inspect any premises dealing with pesticides, to recommend action, to confiscate products as well as to lay charges when there is mismanagement.
Safety from chemical pesticides can only be guaranteed when everybody is equipped with basic knowledge, complies with values that support the environment and operates within the laws that have been put in place to protect us all. In order to facilitate knowledge, values and lawfulness concerning pesticides, all products must have a standardized label giving the Namibian registration number and the contact details of the registration holder. The label must also provide the active ingredient, the direction for dilution and use, all warnings and safety precautions as well as first aid treatment in case of accidents.

All pesticides are color-coded; Groups 4 and 3 are coded GREEN and BLUE and marked “Caution”. Group 2 is YELLOW and marked “Harmful”. Groups 1a and 1b are color-coded RED and are “Toxic” and “Very Toxic”. Recognizing the problems with off-label, illegal and careless pesticide use, MAWF regulates that pesticides color-coded YELLOW and RED may not be displayed on a shelf. Yellow and Red-coded pesticides must be locked away in a safe and a register with the purchaser’s details must be kept for every sale made.

After the vulture poisoning in September a buyer was sent to “Bargain Building Supplies“ in Katima Mulilo as part of the investigation into their sale of pesticides. This buyer had no problem in purchasing the N$31 bottle simply marked Ant Poison. No details for the register were asked for. The 13 protective warnings on the original container of this pesticide were simply disregarded as was the capitalized statement “FOR PROFESSIONAL USE ONLY”. The dilution of this highly concentrated poisonous chemical is 1:100, but on the repackaged illegal bottles, there was no dilution direction.

Pesticides are labeled and color-coded to protect people from mishaps. The pictograms on the labels clearly describe environment and wildlife safety. All labels state that in case of any poisoning event, the label should accompany a person to the hospital in order that medical staff will know how the treatment should proceed. For every action involving chemical pesticides, packaging, handling, transport, storage and use there are clear pictograms and text on the label in order to minimize the risks that manufacturers know are inherent in their products. Opening and packaging of pesticides is supposed to be done in controlled environments such as in a room with washable floors and with certain amounts of air vents and the workers must wear protective clothing including gloves, masks, boots and long sleeved overalls.

Although the inspectorate from the MAWF confiscated the illegally packaged chemicals from “Bargain Building Supplies”, the damage that has and still could be done by these unlabelled bottles is an unknown. Numerous laws and regulations have been broken and besides the danger to wildlife there is an obvious increase in the potential for suicides and homicides. Few people realize the potential of poisoning through simple skin absorption. The child that naughtily removes a bottle from a shelf and accidentally spills some pesticide liquid on clothing might quickly returns the bottle to the shelf and never tell an adult. That poison will be absorbed through the skin from the contaminated clothing and illness within hours or days may result. The unsuspecting parent will have no idea that the unlabelled container actually was originally poured from a container that stated clearly (in words and color coding) “Harmful” or “Toxic” or “Highly Toxic”. Even if a parent suspected the poisoning and took the bottle to a hospital, medical personnel would have no idea of what poison to treat for.

A further criminal offence exposed by our buyer in the Caprivi case and also exposed in numerous other pesticide sales in Namibia is “utterance”. Concerning pesticide misuse, it is a sales person suggesting an off-label or incorrect use of the product. Utterance is highly dangerous as the unsuspecting public that enquires at a shop for a solution to a problem then treats the shops’ sales personnel as an expert on products use and action.

An appeal is hereby made to all who care about their personal and their environment’s safety to understand and be aware of irresponsible behavior concerning pesticides. Misuse of pesticides is an inexcusable criminal activity. Certainly ignorance is no reason for disregarding the law when lives are at stake. Prosecution is probably the best option, because it seems that providing protective laws and asking for cooperation on the issue is simply not enough.

Liz Komen