Use of controversial pesticides in Africa sparks debate. US and UN agencies called to task for failing to follow up on chemicals used

Three pesticides considered unsafe by some United States officials are being used in Africa and parts of the Middle East to save crops from locust swarms. The US Agency for International Development (AID) opposes use of the three pesticides. But in one case one of them was used in US-funded spraying last year, and some AID officials are privately criticizing the agency's lack of follow-up in Africa.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which is coordinating the pesticide campaign, has not authorized use of the three pesticides. But a top FAO official defends use of one of them as effective.

``Sometimes,'' says Mahmoud Tamim, counselor at the Sudanese Embassy in Washington, ``countries are left without any alternative'' when controversial pesticides are donated, even ones which, he says, may be ``poison.'' Sudan is using the controversial pesticides.

During the next three to four months, the locusts, if left unchecked, could destroy vast portions of crops in many nations.

``Is it better to starve to death or have a little pesticide that shouldn't be there?'' asks an official with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

But some experts say research on alternatives has not been pursued enough. ``Some of us feel very strongly we must get off the chemical wagon,'' an AID official says.

According to AID officials, there are safer chemicals than the three controversial ones: lindane, benzene hexachloride (BHC), and dieldrin. By its nearly consistent opposition to these pesticides in last year's spraying, AID officials hoped to reduce their use by other nations. But documents made available by AID show that, in last year's spraying rush, the agency waived environmental and safety regulations on some chemicals, including one waiver for use of lindane in Niger.

An AID attorney says the waiver was issued after the fact. Although AID did not supply lindane, it may have been used in AID-funded spraying in Niger. The attorney says more waivers are likely this year but probably not for lindane. Lindane is registered with the EPA for use against grasshoppers. But its use in spraying has been canceled, an EPA official says.

The two other chemicals are both considered possibly carcinogenic. BHC is no longer registered with the EPA and its use is illegal in the US. Dieldrin is registered with the EPA for use against termites, but it has not been tested for other uses. It is no longer marketed in the US, an EPA official says.

AID documents indicate there are stockpiles of BHC in Sudan. Last year, the US provided assistance to Sudan to fight locusts on the condition that BHC not be used there. But one AID official has complained that apparently there was no follow-up.

AID has strongly criticized use of dieldrin in the FAO anti-locust campaign. But its use is vigorously defended by Rasik Skaf, a senior officer at FAO's Locust Control Center. He says there is no reason why FAO should not transport dieldrin to nations needing it.

``We still believe there is not a practical substitute yet for this product in desert areas,'' Mr. Skaf said. It is widely sprayed, in limited amounts, on vegetation in remote areas ``not inhabited by man or animals,'' he noted. He contended it causes no harm to the environment.

That's ``nonsense,'' says one AID official, who called the FAO's continuing use of dieldrin a ``scandal.'' Even remote vegetation attracts nomads and their livestock, the official noted.

Second of two articles on Africa's locust infestation.

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