The Deadly Chemicals In Cotton

Since the 1980s the global consumption of cotton has risen dramatically; almost doubling in the last 30 years. With demand now in excess of 25 million tonnes annually, the world’s consumers buy more cotton today than ever before, and that cotton is routinely dosed with hazardous chemicals. The authors of a new report advise consumers to “Pick Your Cotton Carefully” and choose organic, fairly traded cotton.

As more and more people choose cotton for its feel of natural fibre and its ability to “breathe” more than synthetics, serious concerns are growing about the ways it is cultivated and its impact on local people.

European campaigns for environmental and social justice are ramping up to promote organic cotton and to expose the problems. It is not a pretty picture.

The Deadly Chemicals in Cotton, a new report by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), in collaboration with the Pesticide Action Network UK (PAN UK), reveals the routine use of harmful chemicals, including nerve agents and neurotoxins, on cotton crops. Vomiting, paralysis, incontinence, coma, seizures and death are some of the many side effects suffered by farmers and children in the developing world who are routinely exposed to pesticides, many of which are banned or restricted in use in the West.

Cotton, the most valuable (legal) non-food agricultural product, is the world’s “dirtiest” crop:

* US$2 billion’s worth of chemicals are sprayed on the world’s cotton crop every year; almost half of the pesticides and herbicides are considered toxic enough to be classified as hazardous by the World Health Organization.

* Cotton is responsible for the release of 16% of global insecticides – more than any other single crop.

* In total, almost 1kg of hazardous pesticides is applied for every hectare of global cropland under cotton.

* Aldicarb, a powerful nerve agent, is one of the most toxic pesticides applied to cotton worldwide. Despite its World Health Organization classification, “extremely hazardous,” US$112 million’s worth is applied to cotton crops each year.

* Endosulfan – attributed to serious health problems, including coma, seizures, convulsions and death – remains as one of the most widely used pesticides in the world: in India, over 3,000 tonnes is applied to cotton crops annually. Endosulfan is thought to be the most important source of fatal poisoning among cotton farmers in West Africa. [See

also page 5 – ED]

A 2004 study conducted by researchers at the Technical University of Lódz, in Poland, has shown that hazardous pesticides applied during cotton production can also be detected in cotton clothing.

Organic cotton

Organic cotton production offers a strong alternative to current production methods. Consumer demand for organic cotton currently stands at between US$800 million and US$1 billion, and is growing so rapidly that demand currently outstrips supply. With strong demand, organic cotton production not only offers a more environmentally and socially sustainable alternative, but is economically viable. Cotton traders and investors (public and private) should encourage the conversion of conventional cotton production to organic methods.

Children are inherently more vulnerable to the negative impacts of exposure to pesticides. In countries such as Uzbekistan and India, children work in the cotton industry, live near cotton fields or are at high danger of pesticide exposure from reused pesticide containers and food.

Steve Trent, Directorof EJF,says “With noless than 99%of the world’scotton farmers living in the developing world, the pesticides are applied in fields where illiteracy is high and safety awareness is low, putting both the environment and lives at risk.” He adds “The dangers faced by poor illiterate children and farmers, to keep our clothes cheap, is unacceptable.”

“Today, only 0.15% of the world’s cotton is guaranteed to be pesticide free. This means that the majority of the cotton we wear is likely to have contributed to the poisoning of lives and the environment in some of the world’s most vulnerable communities,” says Linda Craig, Director of PAN UK. “If the fashion industry is truly concerned about its impact in this world, then it needs to clean up its act and demand organic cotton.”

For more information or the full report, The Deadly Chemicals in Cotton, as well as other reports on cotton and child labour and social justice, see the Environmental Justice Foundation website For information on organic cotton and other pesticide issues visit the Pesticide Action Network UK, or

[Watershed Sentinel, March/April, 2007]

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