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A New Strategy to Reduce Suicide by Pesticide Poisoning

LAST SEPTEMBER, a teenage girl in a village in southern India ended her life after an argument with her family. She had been reprimanded by her father for misplacing the papers she needed to take the entrance test to medical school. Distraught, she swallowed pesticide that her father, a farmer, kept for use on crops.

Consuming pesticides intentionally is almost unheard of in the United States. But in many parts of the world — especially in Asian countries where farming remains small-scale and pesticide use is poorly regulated — ingesting hazardous chemicals is a leading method of suicide. Globally, an estimated 110,000 to 168,000 lives are lost to this act every year, accounting for about 14 to 20 percent of overall suicides, according to a 2017 assessment in the Journal of Affective Disorders.

In the past, international agencies such as the World Health Organization, often with financial support from the pesticide industry, have mainly advocated safe storage and sales restrictions to help reduce these numbers. But more recently, the WHO has begun throwing its weight behind another strategy: national bans on the most hazardous pesticides.

A WHO-funded study published in December in The Lancet Global Health found that enacting such bans in 14 mostly developing countries could reduce suicide deaths by 28,000 people per year. At an annual per capita cost of less than one cent, the intervention would be less expensive than even the cheapest treatments for common mental health disorders, the researchers added, suggesting that the benefits would be highest in countries like China and India where pesticides may contribute to more than 30 percent of suicide deaths.