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

Abstract

Suicide by pesticide ingestion is one of the three most common global means of suicide, causing over 150,000 deaths each year. The majority occur in rural agricultural communities, where pesticides are readily available to small-scale farmers and their families in poor under-resourced households. In addition to enormous individual, communal and societal suffering, as well as public health, economic, and developmental harm, human exposure to pesticides leads to serious human rights violations. This article focuses on the right to life, as the main right impacted by pesticide suicides while touching upon other human rights implications of pesticide self-harm. Our analysis shows that, by failing to restrict access to highly hazardous pesticides, states violate their obligations under international human rights law. States, businesses and civil society need to apply the human rights-based approach to preventing pesticide suicides and to develop a comprehensive plan to phase out or ban the most harmful pesticides.

Introduction

Pesticide self-poisoning (suicide) constitutes a major public health problem in many parts of the world (see Figure 1). It is one of the three most important global means of suicide, together with hanging and shooting (World Health Organisation 2019a). Of the 800,000 individuals who die from suicide each year—one death every 40 seconds—up to 20 percent (World Health Organisation 2019a, 2019b) die from pesticide self-poisoning. Most affected are the rural agricultural communities in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), where 75.5 percent of all global suicides occur.

Figure 1. A patient with organophosphorus insecticide self-poisoning being cared for in Teaching Hospital Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. Photograph by Michael Eddleston, 2003. The patient gave informed consent for the use of this photograph.