Poverty, Pests and Pesticides Sold on South Africa's Streets: Implications for Women and Health

By Rother, Hanna-Andrea | Women & Environments International Magazine, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Poverty, Pests and Pesticides Sold on South Africa's Streets: Implications for Women and Health


Rother, Hanna-Andrea, Women & Environments International Magazine


Kagisoi awoke to the sound of whimpers, scratching at the small red welts covering her arms. Her gaze was captured not by her three children lying on mats on the floor, scratching and softly whining, but on the quick movement of the cockroaches descending the walls and scurrying under the wardrobe. Hunger, malnutrition, poor amenities, unemployment and security risks are the daily experience of poverty in South Africa (SA), but the bed bugs, cockroaches and rats that plague life in informal settlements/ shanty towns were more than Kagiso could bear. Sardined in the taxi heading to the taxi rank market where she has a stand to sell the traditional drink of Mahewu to make a meagre living, Kagiso counted the bed bugs' victories on her fellow passengers' arms. The solution to her insect woes greeted her on arrival at the taxi rank where numerous street sellers tout cheap pesticides, unlabelled in local containers such as brandy nips and juice bottles. For R5 (approximately US$0.69), Kagiso slipped a used juice bottle with a clear substance (mostly likely the highly hazardous organophosphate, methamidaphos, commonly sold on SA streets) into her bag to spray that evening onto her and the children's beds, as well as apply everywhere in the house for cockroaches. Placing the pesticide containing juice bottle behind her makeshift Mahewu stand, she left her son in charge in order to look for change for her morning's prospective customers. Kagiso could not foresee the life altering events that followed her good intentions of protecting herself and her family from pest related disease and discomfort. Upon her return, Kagiso discovered that a regular customer, a local taxi driver, had diluted his Mahewu with the recently purchased pesticide, mistaking the bottle under the table to contain water. Within two hours, the taxi driver was dead and Kagiso was left with a funeral bill of R2000 (approximately US$285) and a furious community, forcing her to leave her home to relocate to an area where her anonymity would enable her to sell her product amongst people who would trust buying Mahewu from her without the fear of her poisoning them.

The Three P's - Poverty, Pests and Pesticides

Research on the health impact on women exposed to pesticides tends to focus on women engaged in agricultural practices. However, studies show that poverty, pests and pesticides are inter-linked and while agricultural exposures are a serious issue, what must not be underestimated are the risks associated with urban domestic use of pesticides, particularly for poor women living in informal settlements/shanty towns. Poor South African women are particularly at risk of acute poisonings and chronic health effects resulting from the use of cheap and illegal pesticides commonly sold at taxi rank markets and on trains, that are known as "street pesticides". The example of Kagiso's story highlights how street pesticides provide a "solution" to the intense poverty-related pest problems poor urban women in South Africa must live and deal with while increasing their exposures to unforeseen risks. In particular, her case shows that the use of street pesticides puts women at risk of inadvertently poisoning their own children and others. Women are not only exposed to health risks from using street pesticides in their homes, but from selling these in an effort to earn much needed income. The use and sale of street pesticides is a complex and silent public health problem. This is particularly a problem for women sellers and users for the following reasons: the mobility of sellers, the products sold are unlabelled and untraceable, the high exposure application and decanting procedures, the high toxicity of the pesticides, the potential for environmental contamination and the general lack of awareness of the associated risks. Perhaps one of the reasons this is a silent public health problem is because there is so little research on the problems women face with poverty-related pests, controlling these and the risks associated with using highly toxic street pesticides.

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