EARTH Thailand

Paraquat ban still needed

Bangkok Post 25 May 2018 | EDITORIAL

A final decision made this week by the Hazardous Substance Committee, refusing to ban the import of paraquat and two other toxic chemicals, is flawed with doubt and controversy.

It shows how the state agencies concerned have failed to share public sentiment over a serious health issue. Import licences of paraquat are scheduled to expire next year.

Over the months, information about the health risks posed by those chemicals has alarmed the public, especially the findings by Chulalongkorn and Mahidol academics that suggested the chemical residues have entered the food chain. A number of countries including neighbouring Vietnam have banned the use of paraquat.

The Health Ministry, backed by civic groups, wants a ban on paraquat, with regulated use for the other two, namely glyphosate and chlorpyrifos, making sure areas near water sources are free of the two chemicals.

However, the panel chaired by Somboon Yindeeyangyuen, who is deputy permanent secretary for industry, claimed "there were insufficient studies confirming any health hazards", and rather than a ban instead opted for "tightening regulations" over the use of those ever-popular herbicides -- measures that are next to impossible to be implemented given the sluggish, inefficient bureaucracy.

If anything, the decision reflects the pro-paraquat stance of the Agriculture Department, which over the months has argued the matter over with the Health Ministry that presented the other side of the case, supported by doctors on the ground who have encountered numerous cases convincing them a ban is a must. The chemicals, in particular paraquat, are harming farmers, consumers and the environment.

But the panel defiantly turned a deaf ear to the suggestion. In its unconvincing claim to justify the pro-paraquat stance, a senior official of the Agriculture Department last week said the agency is worried that issuing the ban on the herbicides may cause legal difficulties as farm chemical producers might decide to sue the government. Such a claim is nonsensical, if not ridiculous.

The decision on Wednesday was challenged by civic groups and consumer protection activists who raised doubts over the role of "invited experts" on the panel that might have influenced its decision.

In media reports, the experts allegedly represented the Thai Crop Protection Association -- a reincarnated agency of the Thai Pesticide Association whose members represent farm chemical giants.

Biothai director Witoon Lienchamroon said the May 23 vote might have violated Section 12 of the Hazardous Substance Act 1992 which prevents members with conflicts of interest from voting.

He stressed the civic groups would ask the Administrative Court to overturn the committee's decision.

Before the authorities defend themselves in court, as challenged by the civic groups, it's necessary they clear the air and ease public anxiety about the allegations and whether their decision was made in the interests of the public, not just a few chemical giants. They are obliged to give the public access to its voting details, and the meeting minutes.

In fact, it's time the Agriculture Department reviews its policy which makes Thai farmers depend heavily on farm chemical use; allowing those toxic substance to poison the soil, water and the environment. According to the Social Venture Network, Thailand is the No.5 country on the list of those with the highest use of farm chemicals.

Thailand's paraquat imports rose to 44,501 tonnes last year, up from 31,525 and 30,441 tonnes in 2016 and 2015 respectively on fears a ban might be imposed on the herbicide, known by its commercial name of Gramoxone. Local media reports indicate its retail price has gone up by 20-30%.

The civic groups deserve public support in their aggressive fight against the herbicides and the chemical giants.

In addition, the government, in particular Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, can no longer keep their distance from the issue which affects the health of millions and the environment.