The cotton fields of sub-Saharan Africa hold a deadly secret—thousands of tons of obsolete pesticides are buried out of sight but slowly taking a toxic toll on the region’s people and environment.

Chemical poisoning is a serious problem in Africa, where many agricultural pesticides and herbicides that can’t be used in Europe or the U.S. are still readily available. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that old or abandoned pesticides are often stored outdoors in leaking containers, or buried, eventually seeping into the soil and water.

United Nations data show that pesticides are responsible for an estimated 200,000 poisoning deaths each year, 99 percent of which occur in developing countries where health, safety, and environmental regulations are weaker.

On Oct. 13, the European Council highlighted the issue of chemical dumping by reaffirming a commitment to reducing the costs of chemical pollution ahead of the third session of the U.N. Environmental Assembly. The assembly will convene in Nairobi in December to identify specific measures to deal with issues including heavy metals, antimicrobial resistance, endocrine disruptors, and the growing use of hazardous pesticides and fertilizers.

The council said it will bear in mind that “growing global production, use, and trade in chemicals are placing an increasing burden on all countries, especially on developing countries.”

Dumping Ground?

Many pesticides banned in the European Union and the U.S. end up being sold cheaply in developing countries where safer alternative chemicals are not always available.

Paraquat, for example, is a highly toxic weedkiller that was banned in the EU in 2007 and branded as “highly poisonous” by U.S. regulators. The chemical is still manufactured by the Swiss-Chinese firm Syngenta and exported to large swathes of the developing world.

U.N. experts claim the practice amounts to an astonishing double standard.

“Paraquat continues to be manufactured for export out of the U.K., despite a prohibition on their use in the U.K. and approximately 40 other countries,” said Baskut Tuncak, the U.N. special rapporteur on toxic wastes.

‘Turn Off the Water First’

But dealing with the whole issue isn’t as simple as putting new regulations on the books.

“The root of the problem is the escalating use of pesticides in agriculture,” said Joe DiGangi, senior science and technical adviser for the International POPs Elimination Network (IPEN). POPs are substances categorized as persistent organic pollutants.

DiGangi said dealing with the issue of obsolete chemicals includes better identification, containment, and removal, along with safer disposal. But the first step should be to stop sending developing countries toxic pesticides that are prohibited elsewhere.

“If the kitchen sink is flooding, it’s a good idea to turn off the water first,” DiGangi said.

Africa Stockpiles Program

The issue of obsolete pesticides gained international attention a decade ago following a World Bank intervention called the Africa Stockpiles Program.

The $60 million program, the first of its kind, was designed to clean up toxic sites in Ethiopia, Mali, Morocco, South Africa, Tanzania, and Tunisia. It also sought to establish new regulations for managing future pesticide use.

But enforcement and governance remain spotty.

“Putting it simply, yes, today is better than yesterday in terms of regulation on paper, but if more resources aren’t allocated to transparency and enforcement, pesticides will pile up on the continent again,” said Gilbert Kuepouo, who runs the Research and Education Center for Development, a conservation nonprofit based in Cameroon.

Call for ‘Stewardship Programs’

In addition to lack of enforcement and bad governance, Kuepouo also points out that many African governments remain dependent on international aid when it comes to pesticide cleanup.

“The big challenge is to get sovereign governments to mainstream the management of pesticides and other chemicals in national budgets,” he said, “and to also get the pesticide industry to fully implement stewardship programs to promote nonchemical alternatives to agrichemicals.”

According to an independent review commissioned by the World Bank, the Africa Stockpiles Program disbursed 75 percent of its resources “but had disposed of only 37 percent of the inventoried publicly held obsolete pesticides and associated waste by closure.”

Citing various challenges—such as the long preparation time, and a difficult partnership-building process—only three countries actually completed some measure of pesticide removal and disposal. Tanzania was the only country in which all obsolete pesticides were disposed of properly. The final review of the program rated its outcome as unsatisfactory.

Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, Central Asia

With the breakup of the Soviet Union more than two decades ago, hundreds of thousands of tons of obsolete pesticides and chemicals were left behind in 15 newly independent republics.

Often buried or stored in makeshift containment sites, many chemicals eventually found their way into the environment.

“It’s a very serious problem in Eastern Europe,” Olga Speranskaya, a Russian scientist and the co-chair of IPEN, said. “The government would just pile the chemicals in some shed in the forest, and then put up a bit of wire around the perimeter.”

Over time, Speranskaya said people would just sneak into the insecure storage sites and take what they thought they could repackage and sell, or use on their own farms.

Eurasian republics served as the breadbasket of the Soviet Union. Countries were often required to keep vast amounts of pesticides on hand to aid in food production—"much more than they could ever use,” notes Speranskaya.

Many of the chemicals included were toxic pesticides such as DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), which was banned for agricultural use worldwide by the Stockholm Convention in 2001. Other now-banned chemicals present in large quantities in Eastern Europe include endosulfan, aldrin, and lindane.

‘Sensitive and Difficult Matter’

Tajikistan still has more than 20,000 tons of obsolete chemicals, said Speranskaya. Azerbaijan has 10,000 tons, and Belarus has 6,000 tons scattered around 146 storage facilities, including seven underground burial sites, Speranskaya said.

While costs for cleaning up all obsolete pesticides are relatively low, around $3,500—6,000 per ton, according to the International HCH and Pesticide Association, Speranskaya said most developing countries don’t have facilities to do it themselves.

In practice, final disposal often involves repackaging chemicals and then shipping them over land to incinerators in Western Europe, and “transporting toxic waste remains a very sensitive and difficult matter,” she said.

“Russia has actually refused to allow shipments across its borders, citing the Basel Convention.”

Solutions to a Chronic Problem

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization has developed a rapid response approach for evaluating potential contaminated sites and helping countries prioritize remediation. Given the logistical challenges to transporting contaminated soil and chemicals, Speranskaya feels the best solution for now is containment on site.

Countries would “monitor these stockpiles and burial sites and control them so people don’t come in and grab them, or that they don’t leak out into rivers and streams.”

Even projects such as the Africa Stockpiles Program, which fell short of achieving its objective, could be considered a step in the right direction.

“I would not characterize the [Africa Stockpiles Program] as a failure,” said Douglas Graham, a senior environmental specialist for the World Bank’s Africa region. “It was a very ambitious set of projects across many countries. In terms of getting rid of x number of pesticide stocks, it underperformed,” he said.

“But, that’s the nature of development work,” said Graham. “It certainly did succeed at bringing attention to the issue in countries that probably hadn’t paid much attention to pesticides before.”