Why pesticide exposure is a violation of children’s rights

To mark World Children’s Day, Leah Utyasheva explains why children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of pesticide exposure and asks whose job it is to protect them.

This article discusses suicidal behaviour. If you have questions on self-harm or feel suicidal, call 116 123 to speak to a Samaritan (UK) or use this link to find an international helpline.

During our work in Sri Lanka, our team learned the story of a 16-year-old girl who recently died because of highly toxic pesticides.

Warunika had been cooking dinner when an argument broke out with her younger brother. She struck him with a broom and he began to cry. While her mother consoled her brother, Warunika disappeared and returned shortly with the bottle in her hand. ‘I drank this’, she said.

She died the next day in hospital.

Warunika’s parents do not believe she intended to die. They believe that she felt ashamed and afraid that she had hurt her brother. She drank the poison to show them how upset she was feeling.

If she had not had access to a lethal pesticide at that specific moment, she may not have died.

WARNING: video contains content about suicide and death that may be upsetting

The problem of pesticide poisoning

Warunika’s story is not unique. Pesticide poisoning is common in many low and middle income countries, such as Sri Lanka where Warunika lived.

Most cases occur in agricultural communities where residents, including children, have easy access to lethal pesticides that are sold locally and stored in their homes.

Children are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of pesticides because of their behaviour, such as frequent hand-to-mouth activity, and smaller body weight.

Acute poisoning (where the adverse effects are felt immediately or after short-term exposure) can happen by accident when children play with them, consume them by mistake, or are exposed when helping their parents with farm work. It can also result from intentional acts of self-harm (as in the case of Warunika), where pesticides are consumed in a moment of crisis.

Children are also vulnerable to long-term effects from exposure to pesticides in food, water, or the environment.

A child’s right to life

The Convention of the Rights of the Child – the most ratified human rights treaty in the world – requires States to recognise a child’s inherent right to life and, “ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child”.

Furthermore, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights stipulates that every child shall have the right to special measures of protection as required by their status as a minor.

However, a child’s right to life is violated when easy access to highly hazardous pesticides puts their life in danger due to accidental or intentional pesticide poisoning. This was the case for Warunika.

Child playing with pesticide bottle
Child playing with pesticide bottle

Whose job is it to protect?

States are the main duty-bearers in relation to human rights. They have a duty, enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to adopt laws to protect life from all foreseeable threats. In particular, special measures are required to protect vulnerable communities, especially children.

However, responsibility also lies with the powerful corporations that produce and sell highly toxic pesticides to communities in the Global South, communities who may be unable to handle these highly toxic pesticides safely.

Under the human rights framework, both governments and third parties (corporations) must refrain from violating human rights. State parties must take positive actions to intervene to protect people from violations by third parties. Companies must implement the principle of due diligence when they identify, prevent, mitigate, and account for how they address their adverse human rights impacts.

Preventative measures that work

If we are to take children’s right to life seriously, then prevention of pesticide exposure and poisoning needs to become a global priority.

The most effective way to reduce deaths from pesticide poisoning is to restrict access to highly toxic pesticides.

By adopting laws designed to ban or phase out lethal pesticides, States can protect children from the devastating effects of pesticide exposure.

Dr Leah Utyasheva
Policy Director, Centre for Pesticide Suicide Prevention (CPSP)

Leah Utyasheva has a background in law and human rights and has worked as a researcher and policy and law reform specialist. Her work at CPSP focuses on human rights-based approaches to pesticide management, human rights aspects of HHP use in low- and middle-income countries, reduction of pesticide suicide through regulation, policy initiatives to improve suicide reporting, and decriminalization of suicide attempt.

Related publications

Human Rights Perspective on Pesticide Exposure and Poisoning in Children: A Case Study of India

Prevention of pesticide suicides and the right to life: The intersection of human rights and public health priorities