Skin contact with the chemical known as terbufos can kill you. Symptoms of poisoning are involuntary muscle contractions, drooling, visual disorders, reduced coordination, dizziness, vomiting, difficulty breathing and loss of consciousness. In the EU, it is illegal to use pesticides that contain terbufos because the chemical is so toxic. On Brazilian coffee plantations, however, it can be used to fight insects.
Half of all the coffee produced in Brazil comes from the state of Minas Gerais. In 2014, over 364,000 kg of pesticides containing terbufos were sold in the three regions of the state that are home to the most coffee plantations. Terbufos is just one of thirty active pesticide ingredients that are prohibited in the EU, but approved by Brazilian authorities for use on Brazilian coffee plantations. Tons of chemicals like aldicarb, fenpropathrin and carbuforan, which European authorities have determined to be too dangerous to workers and to the environment, were sold in 2014 in the three regions of Minas Gerais state where the majority of its coffee plantations are located.
Coffee worker Francisco Paulo Pereira applied pesticides on a Brazilian coffee plantation without protective equipment. Today he is extremely ill.
“These chemicals are outlawed in the EU because they are extremely toxic and can cause serious acute and long-term health problems”, says Erik Jørs, a senior consultant on the Clinic of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at the University Hospital and the University of Southern Denmark in Odense, who has spent many years studying the use of pesticides in developing countries.
“Many of the chemicals are neurotoxins that affect both insects and humans”, says Jørs, explaining that researchers suspect that the substances damage reproductive systems and cause Parkinson’s-like symptoms such as coordination problems and trembling hands.
Risk of cancer
The chemicals that are sprayed on Brazilian coffee are not only acutely toxic; some of them may also cause cancer. One of the most common herbicides used on Brazilian coffee plantations is glyphosate, which is sold under the brand name Roundup and used around the world as a weed killer.
In the three regions of Minas Gerais state where most of its coffee plantations are located, 1,800 tons plus 18,000,000 litres of glyphosate were sold in 2014. In March 2015, the World Health Organisation (WHO) changed its classification of glyphosate to “probably carcinogenic to humans”, in part because the chemical has been shown to cause cancer in research animals.
Glyphosate’s dangers include damage to DNA, according to Fabio Gomes, an expert working at the Brazilian National Cancer Institute (INCA).
“Even in small doses, glyphosate can cause cancer twenty to thirty years later”, says Gomes.
The question of whether glyphosate causes cancer is still debated, and in November 2015, the European Food Safety Administration determined that the chemical is unlikely to damage DNA or to cause cancer in humans.
Applying pesticides without protection
Even though workers on Brazilian coffee plantations are handling toxic, disease-causing pesticides, they often apply them without or with insufficient protective equipment, according to experts, coffee workers, and union officials.
Several of the coffee workers encountered by Danwatch during the harvest described how they applied pesticides wearing their own clothes and without necessary protective equipment.
Coffee worker Elisabete Vitor da Costa describes how empty pesticide bottles are used to store food and drink.
Coffee worker Elisabete Vitor da Costa is helping to coordinate an awareness campaign about pesticides on coffee plantations in Minas Gerais. She lives in the city of Três Corações in southern Minas Gerais, in a neighbourhood that is home to many of the area’s coffee workers. She says that it is very rare that workers wear all the necessary protective gear when they are applying pesticides.
“There are about 700 coffee plantations in Três Corações and São Bento Abade. I have seen only one plantation where the workers wore protective equipment”, she says. Another problem, according to Costa, is that workers are not properly trained to use the pesticides before they are required to spray them on plants or soil.
Eduardo Garcia Garcia is a pesticide expert and researcher at the Brazilian research institute Fundacentro, which is affiliated with the Brazilian Ministry of Labour and Employment. According to him, there are plenty of laws in place that require workers to wear protective equipment when applying pesticides.
“The problem is a lack of compliance”, he says.
Handkerchiefs instead of masks
Proper protective equipment should primarily keep workers from inhaling the chemicals and from getting drops of it on their skin. Equipment regulations depend on the type of product being applied, how poisonous it is, and whether it is in powder or liquid form, as well as on the type of plant being sprayed (whether it is a tall or short plant, has many or few leaves, etc.). Pesticides are labelled with a description of the necessary protective equipment, but according to Garcia, these recommendations are very general and do not take the aforementioned considerations into account. Usually, the product labels recommend that workers should wear a long-sleeved shirt, gloves, hat, face mask, glasses and boots.
“The recommendations seldom take heat and the risk of dehydration into consideration. As a result, workers often fail to use all the equipment, and improvise instead”, says Garcia.
Rodrigo Carvalho Fernandes, an inspector from Instituto Mineiro de Agropecuária (IMA), the state agricultural institute in Minas Gerais, agrees. IMA carries out inspections related to the use of pesticides on coffee plantations.
“The workers often don’t want to use the safety equipment because it has a tendency to be uncomfortable and hot”, says Fernandes.
According to Eduardo Garcia Garcia from Fundacentro, it’s also a question of money. “Instead of using expensive gloves, they may use a plastic bag to cover their hand, or a handkerchief to cover their mouth and nose. This gives a false sense of security. The poison gets into the material. A handkerchief can actually do even more harm than good, since it spreads the poison around on the skin.”
Garcia thinks that it’s problematic to focus only on the responsibility of workers to use the correct protective equipment. Meanwhile, workers’ resistance to the equipment is not the only problem, if you ask the largest agricultural labour union in Minas Gerais, the Federação dos Trabalhadores na Agricultura do Estado de Minas Gerais (FETAEMG).
“Some plantations simply do not offer it”, says FETAEMG’s leader, Vilson Luiz da Silva.
Nothing protects 100 %
Even if the workers wear all the approved protective equipment, they cannot be sure they are safe.
“The problem is that no kind of safety equipment protects you 100 percent. The equipment reduces the impact of pesticides, but it does not eliminate it”, says Eduardo Garcia Garcia from Fundacentro.
“We don’t believe that protective equipment solves the problem”, says Fabio Gomes from the Brazilian National Cancer Institute (INCA). He explains that when it comes to cancer risk, even small doses over a long period of time can be problematic.
Pesticide poisoning is widespread
The use of acutely toxic pesticides leads to pesticide poisonings and deaths in the coffee state of Minas Gerais. The latest numbers from Brazil’s national toxicological information system, Sistema Nacional de Informações Tóxico-Farmacológicas (Sinitox), record 21 deaths and 817 poisonings caused by agricultural pesticides in Minas Gerais in 2012.
According to Dr Jandira Maciel da Silva from INCA, an expert in pesticides and farm workers, the hidden numbers are considerable. “Many cases are never reported”, she says.
A survey of coffee workers taken in southern Minas Gerais in 2011 hints at the scope of the problem. Out of a group of 412 workers, 59 percent experienced at least one typical symptom of pesticide poisoning. The study was carried out by researchers from the Universidade Federal de Itajubá in Minas Gerais.
“Many coffee workers complain of dizziness and stomach pain”, says Jorge Ferreira dos Santos Filho of the organisation Articulação dos Empregados Rurais de Minas Gerais (Adere), which works to improve conditions for coffee workers. Santos has also noticed an increasing incidence of rash on workers’ arms.
Marluce Silva Braz describes how she got a severe rash when harvesting coffee
When she harvested coffee, the skin on Marluce Silva Braz’s hands began to burn and develop fluid-filled blisters that later turned into open sores.
Many of the other coffee workers in Braz’s neighbourhood in Três Corações in southern Minas Gerais have symptoms like dizziness, nausea, difficulty breathing and stomach pain.
Sixty-three-year-old Goncalo de Sousa Barbosa, who for years applied pesticides without protective equipment, reports difficulty breathing and episodes of dizziness. Others who worked with pesticides have trouble walking and describe feeling like their feet are asleep.
According to Dr Jandira Maciel da Silva, pesticides have been linked to a wide range of other serious health problems.
“A pervasive problem among farm workers, including coffee workers, who are exposed to pesticides is the incidence of children with birth defects”, she says, adding that miscarriages, suicide and fertility problems also appear to be correlated with pesticide exposure.
Increased risk of cancer
When coffee workers experience symptoms of acute pesticide poisoning like dizziness, stomach pain, tremors, sweating and headache while they are applying pesticides, it is not very difficult to demonstrate a connection between the pesticides and the symptoms. It is much more challenging to do so when illness first arises days, months or years later.
“It is very difficult to prove causality between the use of pesticides and cancer, because cancer takes so many years to develop”, says Eduardo Garcia Garcia from Fundacentro.
Fabio Gomes from INCA describes similar difficulties when trying to measure the connection between cancer and pesticides. He says that the number of unreported cases is very high because it is rarely noted that a cancer patient has a risk factor like pesticide exposure.
“When you speak to health personnel in agricultural areas where the use of pesticides is increasing, they report that the incidence of cancer is also increasing. They see a connection, but it is very difficult to prove it in a scientific way”, he says.
In 2007 his colleague at INCA, Dr Jandira Maciel da Silva, was able to show a correlation between cancer and the pesticides that are used by agricultural workers in southern Minas Gerais. Her study showed that workers who had been exposed to pesticides that are used on coffee and other crops were four times more likely to develop lymphoma.
“The study showed a significant correlation between cancer and work on coffee plantations, mainly among those who applied pesticides, but also among temporary workers who picked coffee at the harvest,” says Silva.
Family members also at risk
Workers on coffee plantations are not the only ones who risk illness as a result of contact with pesticides. They may also expose their families to small amounts of the dangerous chemicals when they come home from work in the same clothing they wore while applying pesticides.
“New research has shown that workers who bring their equipment home to wash it expose women (in the home, ed.) to the poisons. A lack of awareness about these things is a serious and widespread problem”, says Garcia from Fundacentro.
“The workers often put their pesticide-contaminated work clothes in with the rest of their laundry. They just take a bath when they come back from their plantation work, and usually don’t take any other precautions”, says Dr Silva from INCA.
Drinking water from pesticide containers
Another problem is that empty pesticide bottles are sometimes used for other, dangerous purposes.
Before Jorge Ferreira dos Santos Filho became a coordinator and advocate for coffee workers with the organisation Adere, he was a coffee worker himself. Today he travels around to coffee plantations, reporting irregularities to the authorities.
“Often, workers will take a five-litre pesticide container down to the river to get drinking water”, he says.
Years ago, when he worked on coffee plantations, Jorge Ferreira dos Santos Filho also used to drink from empty pesticide bottles. He didn’t know that it could be dangerous.
Rodrigo Carvalho Fernandes, one of the agricultural inspectors from IMA in Minas Gerais, says that, earlier, empty pesticide containers were frequently used to store drinking water without being properly cleaned first.
“This issue has improved somewhat,” but irregularities still remain, he says.
According to coffee worker and pesticide-awareness campaigner Elisabete Vitor da Costa, it is still quite common for people to use empty pesticide bottles to store drinking water or milk.
Traces of dangerous pesticides in waterways
Ordinary people who live near coffee plantations also risk ingesting small doses of dangerous pesticides. Once pesticides have been sprayed on plants, rain washes some of the chemicals into the earth and onwards into streams and rivers, where they pollute the environment.
In 2013, Alexandra Fátima Saraiva Soares, a Brazilian civil and sanitation engineer and PhD who studies pesticides and water contamination, published as part of a team of researchers an investigation into pesticide residues in waterways near coffee plantations in Manhuaçu, Minas Gerais. In their water samples, the researchers found traces of twenty-four different pesticides, including the acutely toxic substance terbufos, which is outlawed in the EU. Terbufos is used to kill insects. If the chemical is being rinsed into rivers and waterways, it will also kill insects and water-dwelling animals there.
The EU’s official classification says Terbufos is “very toxic to aquatic life with long lasting effects”.
According to Soares, water purification facilities are not able to remove pesticide residues, and she worries that they may pollute the drinking water in local homes.
“We do not know the health effects of exposure to low concentrations of pesticides over long periods of time”, she says.