Paraquat is toxic if swallowed and the concentrated formulations are irritants to eyes and skin. There have been highly publicized reports of fatalities related to the ingestion of paraquat.
When paraquat was first introduced in the 1960s, a common malpractice was to decant pesticides into smaller containers such as drink bottles without appropriate labeling. The original paraquat formulations were odorless reddish-brown liquids which led them to be mistaken for drinks such as cola, tea, or red wine. Regrettably a series of fatal poisonings due to mistaken ingestion occurred.
Steps were introduced more than 25 years ago to address this problem:
- Pack sizes were changed to discourage the practice of decanting
- A new global labeling standard was introduced
- StewardshipDescription The responsible and ethical management of a crop protection product in a way that takes full and balanced account of the interests of users, future generations, and other species. Authoritative On-line References and Resources http://www.croplife.org/ CropLife International is a global federation representing the plant science industry and a network of regional and national associations in 91 countries. These organisations are committed to sustainable agriculture through innovative research and technology in the areas of crop protection, non-agricultural pest control, seeds and plant biotechnology. and training efforts were enhanced to ensure that people handling paraquat were aware that it contains chemicals and should be used exclusively for the control of weeds. These were directed, in particular, towards smallholder farmers in developing countries where the majority of incidents occurred
- Paraquat formulations were given three 'safening' agents to avoid accidental ingestion and to deter misuse:
- blue dye
- alerting agent (a strong and deterring odor)
- emetic (to induce vomiting).
The combination of these measures has proven effective in addressing the problem of accidental ingestion and fatalities from such incidents are now extremely rare.
Unfortunately, there have been incidences reported of deliberate exposure to paraquat by people intent on committing suicide. While crop protection products are one of the methods used to commit suicide, they are not one of the most frequent and paraquat is not the most frequently used product (WHO (2001), FDA (2003), Ministry of Agriculture, India, (2000)). Following a peak in the 1980s, suicide fatalities involving paraquat have decreased (Sabapathy, 1995).
Paraquat is irritating and harmful to eyes and skin, especially in its concentrated form, so gloves and eye protection should be worn (as with all pesticides when mixing concentrates). Prolonged and repeated contact of spray-strength paraquat with skin, through leaking spray equipment or poor personal hygiene, can cause skin irritation and even damage in severe cases. Similar poor practices have been reported to be associated with nail damage and nose bleeds. These are visible warnings to the user that he or she is doing something wrong and these warnings come in good time to avoid any further health risk. If the basic label precautions are followed, these symptoms will clear quickly with no lasting effect. The skin irritation and related symptoms heal when exposure to paraquat ceases and the affected areas are washed or treated as needed. To put this into context, one would not leave skin in prolonged contact with oven cleaner, degreaser, oil, petrol, solvents, dishwasher fluid or many other common substances without experiencing skin damage and effects on health.
Enhancing human safety through product stewardship and education
Some companies, such as Syngenta, which manufacture paraquat have initiated stewardship and education programs for customers around the world in order to train farmers on the safe and appropriate use of paraquat. The results of these educational efforts offer compelling evidence that basic education can significantly increase safe practices among farmers.