World Health Day 2022: The role of pesticide vendors in tackling a global health problem

A woman walks into a pesticide shop in Sri Lanka asking to buy something strong that will kill insects quickly. After she leaves, the salesperson tells her husband that the woman looked suspicious; she fears that the pesticide has been bought for the wrong reason.

The husband immediately rushes out and sees the woman walking fast, anxiously looking around her. He shouts out and, with the help of onlookers, seizes the pesticide bottle from the woman’s hands.

The shopkeeper had correctly guessed that the woman intended to harm herself by drinking the pesticide. This action saved her life.

Pesticide self-poisoning

Pesticide self-poisoning is a global health problem, responsible for 150,000 deaths every year. Most cases occur in agricultural communities in South and East Asia.

In Sri Lanka, pesticide shops are widespread in rural areas, making pesticides freely available for over-the-counter purchase and providing easy access for self-poisoning.

One in five people who use pesticides for self-poisoning in South Asia purchase it from a local shop. Pesticide vendors can therefore play a crucial role in preventing people in their community from harming themselves.

‘Gatekeeper’ training

The Centre for Pesticide Suicide Prevention has been working with farming communities in Sri Lanka for over 20 years. We believe that vendors can act as ‘gatekeepers’ to identify and stop non-farmers from buying pesticides over the counter.

The shopkeeper who saved the woman’s life was part of a training programme we developed and delivered to the community. He says this training helped him and his wife distinguish the high-risk customer from genuine customers.

Measuring success

The training programme is part of an ongoing large-scale research study being carried out by the Centre for Pesticide Suicide Prevention.

The study is being run in two areas of rural Sri Lanka, populated by about 2.7 million people. Alongside training for local vendors, data is being collected on numbers of self-poisoning cases to determine its impact.

The project is being led by Dr Manjula Weerasinghe, who said:

“Previous studies have dramatically demonstrated the potential for vendor ‘gatekeeper’ training to reduce instances of pesticide self-poisoning. Because purchases from local shops contribute to so many self-harm attempts and deaths, preventing these could make a significant contribution to lowering global pesticide suicide rates.”

The results of the study are due to be published in early 2024. If successful, it is hoped that training will be introduced globally.