Expired and illegal pesticides — a toxic threat to Armenia

Pesticide dump in Jrarat (Galust Nanyan /OC Media)

In many rural communities in Armenia, farmers continue to make use pesticides banned in the country over 30 years ago. Stashed in basements, sheds, and Soviet–era warehouses from before the ban came in, these toxic substances continue to threaten the health and well-being of Armenians.

Fifty-two-year-old Narine Sargsyan, a resident of the village of Jrarat in the Armavir Province, recalls her father using dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane — commonly known as DDT — to protect the garden plants from insects. ‘He kept DDT in the shed. After his death, I continued to use this pesticide until last year’, Narine tells OC Media.

‘One day my sister saw — she was in shock. She began to explain to me the harm it causes. I realised that I’d nearly poisoned my family using this banned pesticide. Thank God nothing bad has happened to us’.

According to ecologist Hakob Sanasaryan, the head of the Union of Greens of Armenia, DDT can cause several malignant diseases and infertility; the World Health Organisation has linked the substance to several types of cancer.

As a result, DDT was banned in Armenia more than 30 years ago, and the country ratified the Stockholm Convention on persistent organic pollutants (POPs) in 2003. The convention, signed by 152 country’s prohibits or severely restricts several such substances and requires Armenia to eliminate all expired organochlorine pesticides and POPs from the country.

Toxic carrots

Since 2013, the Center for Ecological-Noosphere Studies at Armenia’s National Academy of Sciences has been analysing residual pesticides in plant-based food produced in the country. They detected DDT and other persistent organic pollutants (POPs) in many rural areas. These pesticides are a serious, potentially fatal threat to public health.

‘It’s been more than 30 years since DDT was banned for agricultural use, but we found it on numerous plots of land around the regions of Armavir, Kotayk, and Shirak’, says Davit Pipoyan, head of the Department of Food Chain Risk Assessment at the National Academy of Sciences.

Pipoyan says farmers told him that when DDT was banned, they stored it away under their roofs and continued to use it anyway.

‘Many villagers would bathe their cattle with DDT to get rid of lice. Then they would let the animals out into fields, contaminating the soil’, Pipoyan tells OC Media.

The Center for Ecological-Noosphere Studies has already found DDT, among other harmful pesticides, in carrots. ‘The problem is that the government doesn’t yet have a map of the contamination, which it will need in order to understand which tracts of land present a health hazard’, Pipoyan says.

He says he hopes Armenia’s recent political changes will bolster environmental progress — that positive steps will finally be taken and that a policy of cleaning the land will be executed. ‘The state needs to understand that this is an issue of national security. Every day of inaction means more illness. When people get cancer from the contamination, treatment and labour costs are incredibly expensive’, he adds.

Warehouses in ruins

These toxic, expired pesticides are not only stored in villagers’ households, but also in large warehouses in many villages around the country.

The Ministry for Agriculture last conducted an inventory of expired pesticides in 2014. It found approximately 150 tonnes of expired pesticides in all 10 of Armenia’s provinces. Deputy Agriculture Minister Ashot Harutyunyan says that expired pesticides were detected in 29 of the 64 such warehouses that Armenia took over from the Soviet Union.

‘The expired pesticides are mainly located in warehouses that belonged to the former Hayberiutyun research and production association, which was eventually privatised, so the land is now controlled by those private owners. International experts, who took part in the inventory found the pesticides in those warehouses to be safe for the environment’, Harutyunyan tells OC Media.

Jrarat, 30 kilometres from Yerevan, holds the region’s largest stockpile of expired Soviet pesticides. Surplus chemicals from across the entire republic were collected and brought to warehouses there. Today, some of those warehouses lie in ruins.

Harutyunyan, however, insists the central warehouse in Jararat has been locked and secured by its owner.

‘The warehouses were destroyed for a number of reasons. But when the buildings were demolished, the pesticides were left inside’, notes Lilik Simonyan, an expert from local envoronmentaly group Women for Health and a Healthy Environment.

‘We constantly advocate for research on the chemicals and compounds that are in those warehouses, so that these problems can be solved comprehensively’, she tells OC Media.

A soviet pesticide dump in Yerevan

The Nubarashen landfill was opened in the Erebuni suburb of Yerevan in 1976, and pesticides were buried there until the mid-1980s. Today, the landfill contains about 900 tonnes of toxic chemicals, expired pesticides, and POPs including DDT. Inherited by Armenia after the Soviet era, this landfill still presents a threat to the environment and to public health.

Located in a landslide zone, the waste puts the three surrounding villages at especially serious health risk. ‘The landslide zone facilitates the spread of buried chemicals and pesticides into the earth. The fact that the locals know nothing about it only makes it worse. Cattle grazes on this land’, agro-ecologist Galust Nanyan tells OC Media.

Nanyan says the dangers of the Nubarashen landfill have been widely discussed for years. ‘In 2008, and again in May 2010, workers dug metres deep into the landfill, destroying its upper layer and escalating the spread of the pesticides’, says Nanyan.

Armenian Women for Health and a Healthy Environment has decried the Nubarashen landfill for years, regularly raising concerns about its impact on the environment and on public health.

Research conducted by the group in 2009 showed that the level of toxic pesticides in the soil was several hundred times higher than what they considered acceptable, a point emphasised by Simonyan in an interview with OC Media.

The organisation also conducted a study of the residents in the villages surrounding the landfill, which revealed the presence of DDT in women’s breast milk. ‘The landslide zone eroded the structural integrity of the landfill, eventually letting pesticides leak into the external environment’, says Lilik Simonyan.

The government has responded by announcing plans to make it safe. During press briefing on the topic, Deputy Minister for Environment Khachik Hakobyan noted that UNDP Armenia and the government of Armenia had launched a project to remove and destroy hazardous waste and to cleanse the land around the Nubarashen landfill.

‘The project’s total budget is $4.7 million. Among its goals are the extraction of POPs and banned or expired pesticides, as well as the detoxification of the surrounding land’, said Gayane Gharagebakyan, the project’s coordinator, adding that international assistance would be involved ‘at every stage of the project’.

Lilik Simonyan from the Armenian Women for Health and a Healthy Environment remains unconvinced that things will change after such a long period of stagnation. Nevertheless, she says, they await the launch of the project with hope.

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