By Evangeline Majawat
There is one childhood story that Elaine Tai remembers fondly. It is retold at almost every family gathering and it is a tale that those close to her, know by heart. Back when she was a five-year-old toddler, Tai was happily playing in her room when she suddenly choked and stopped breathing. Her grandmother saw her gasping for air and screamed for help. The next thing she knew she was in hospital, surrounded by her hysterical family.
“I had nibbled on a mothball. My popo found some in my hands and she said she could smell it on my breath! That’s about all I remember,” she laughingly recalls. Tai had found the mothballs while rummaging through some drawers. This is not an isolated episode of poisoning, especially where kids are concerned and Tai is very lucky to be around today, to tell her tale.
What You Need to Know About Pesticides
Pesticides are substances that are used to prevent, destroy, repel or mitigate pests. According to general practitioner Dr. Shahryl Aziz, pesticides include herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides. “All pesticides are poisonous, albeit to varying degrees,” he stresses.
Aerosol insect sprays, cockroach and rat baits and poisons, mothballs, weed killer, kitchen, bathroom and toilet disinfectants, flea and tick powders and collars, and personal insect repellants are all considered pesticides. Household pesticides are categorised as lower-risk compared to agriculture products. “Pesticides can cause harm to us, our pets and the environment because their main function is to kill living organisms. Yet, they are also beneficial as they kill disease-carrying pests such as mosquitoes and rats,” says Dr Shahryl.
The use of pesticides in an agro-based country is unavoidable. In an article published by the National Poison Centre, Malaysia’s Professional Bulletin, showed that pesticides accounted for 40.3 percent of human poisoning in Malaysia between the years 1979 to 1988. More than 70 percent of the reported cases are suicides; about 14 percent accidental and about one percent were caused by occupational exposure.
Unfortunately, studies on pesticides are rare and often focused on agriculture. There is not much data on household poisonings.
Overall, there are three key ways that pesticides enter our bodies:
1) Dermally – by absorption via the skin or eyes
2) Orally – through the mouth
3) Inhalation – by breathing it into the lungs
According to a decade-old report entitled Poisoned and Silenced: A Study of Pesticide Poisoning in the Plantations by Tenaganita and Pesticide Action Network (PAN) Asia and the Pacific, “some parts of the skin, such as the genital area, the face and neck followed by the back of the hands, armpits and forearm absorb pesticides more easily than others. If the skin is damp or wet, or if there is a cut or rash, pesticides will go through the skin faster and in larger amounts.”
Children face a higher risk because they absorb more poison than adults at the same level of exposure due to a large skin surface in relation to their smaller size. Children are also more susceptible to poisons that can be inhaled because they have a faster breathing rate.
Prevention is Vital
The first step in preventing accidental poisoning in your home is to keep any household pesticides away from children and pets. “It’s common sense. Keep the aerosol sprays, the mosquito coils, weed killers, and essentially any household pesticides in a secure place. Remember that children are naturally curious so keep it in a locked cabinet if you have to,” advises Dr Shahryl.
Pest controller James White Ants Destroying Sdn. Bhd, Pavithra Sugumaran also strongly recommends that rat and cockroach baits and poisons, and mothballs are not left in the open unattended. “Children or your pets will eat it. If you have these poisons at home, make sure you kids and pets can’t get to it,” she says.
Pavithra stresses that household pesticides work only for minor infestations. “Don’t keep spraying or using household pesticides if you suspect you have a major pest problem. It’s best to call in the professionals to take care of the problem and prevent accidental poisoning.”
If you think you or someone else has been poisoned by household pesticides, seek medical help immediately. It is important not to force the person who has been poisoned to throw up unless expressly advised by a health care professional. If the poison gets on the skin or eyes, wash with lots of water. If poison has been inhaled, make sure to move to an area with plenty of fresh air. You can also call the National Poison Centre Malaysia, 24-Hour Service Poison Information and Consultation, line for advice:
Office hours : 1-800-88-8099 / +604-657 0099
(Monday – Friday: 8.10am – 5.10pm)
After office hours: +6012-430 9499
(Including weekends and public holidays)
Pesticides and Food
Microbes, dirt, bacteria, pests and residual pesticides are found on fresh produce, which is why it is important to wash fruits and vegetables. Commercial produce cleaners are available in the shops but you should know that their effectiveness have yet to be proven. The US Food and Drug Administration advises against their use because the safety of the residues has not been evaluated and their effectiveness has not been tested or standardised.
Choose organic whenever possible and keep you and your family safe with these simple tips:
- DO wash your vegetables and fruits under cold running water.
- DO soak your leafy vegetables in a clean basin. Add a pinch of salt or a dash of vinegar to remove any germs and residual pesticides and dissolve the wax on some fruits and vegetables.
- DO scrub hard-skinned produce such as potatoes, carrots and celeries under running water.
- DO wipe mushrooms with a wet paper towel to remove dirt.
- DO wash all fresh produce even if you plan to peel them. Washing them beforehand diminishes the chances of cross contamination.
- DON’T wash fruits and vegetables with soap or bleach solutions. Fresh produce tend to be porous and can absorb chemicals.
Sidebar 3: Symptoms of Pesticide Poisoning.