SCIENTISTS say that around 15 million people worldwide may have died from suicide by pesticide poisoning since 1960 – but they believe there could be more.

The Green Revolution of the 1950s and 60s saw new technology trigger a boom in agricultural production with new, high-yielding crop varieties introduced into low and middle-income countries, which required large amounts of chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

But researchers from the University of Edinburgh say the introduction of these hazardous substances into poor, rural communities is responsible for many of the suicides.

They say their estimate of 15m suicide could be higher. Suicide is illegal in many countries and a large number of pesticide poisonings – among the leading methods of suicides globally – happens in areas without effective death registration systems.

Their paper, published in the Journal of Clinical Toxicology, said: “Pesticide self-poisoning has been a major clinical and public health problem in low- and middle-income countries for decades while being long ignored.

“Unfortunately, it is difficult to estimate the global number of pesticide suicides largely because most occur in poor rural regions, with weak death certification and reporting systems.

“This problem has been exacerbated by the illegality of suicide in many countries, hindering reporting of suicides and recognition of the scale of the problem.”


STRONGER pesticide regulation in low and middle-income countries has been cited by the Edinburgh team as one way of preventing the suicides. They say Sri Lanka has witnessed a drop of 75% over the last 20 years, because of revised policies on the availability and composition of pesticides in small rural communities, as well as improved poisoning treatment.

Hazardous pesticides – such as highly toxic organophosphorus insecticides – have been widely used in rural communities since the 1960s, but the team said many rural communities do not have the facilities to use or store them safely.

They report easy access for people during times of stress had led to a global epidemic of death by self-poisoning, with most cases recorded in rural communities of Asia-Pacific and African regions.

Such suicide attempts involve little planning and people often report considering it for less than half an hour before ingesting pesticides. Many die before getting to hospital for potentially life-saving treatment.


THIS problem should be a global priority, say the scientists, whose data they showed the number of suicides has fallen over the past 10-20 years largely because of a reduction in China.

It had seen a movement of people from rural areas to cities – where there are fewer pesticides – and had banned a number of highly hazardous pesticides which are commonly used for suicide.

Despite this, the researchers say the problem should still be a global public health priority.

Professor Michael Eddleston, director of the Centre for esticide Suicide Prevention at the University of Edinburgh, said: “Suicide attempts often occur at short-lived moments of great stress. The easy availability of highly lethal means – like pesticides or guns – at these times massively increases the risk of the person dying.

“The absence of these highly toxic pesticides allows people to survive their poisoning attempt and then go on to find help in their communities and local mental health services. Many go on to live a long and fulfilling life.”