Suicide by pesticide in Nepal
Of the 25,308 suicides recorded by the police in Nepal in the past five years, poisoning was the method of choice of 6,213 and pesticides were the most common form of poison used. Suicide by pesticides is the easiest, cheapest and the quickest way to kill oneself in Nepal.
A 2015 study in Chitwan showed that 90% of all poisoning cases resulted from deliberate ingestion of pesticides. Hospital and forensic data over the years reveal that pesticide self-poisoning kills at least 1,000 people in Nepal annually.
“Pesticides are in fact a far greater threat than what police records show. There are many people who make the attempt and survive due to insufficient dose or medical treatment,” says Ravi Shakya, a mental health specialist at Patan Hospital. “If we also count attempted suicides, pesticide is the most preferred method of suicide in Nepal.”
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Shailesh Thapa Chhetri of Nepal Police agrees: “Previously, hanging used to be the most common method of suicide, as people had the easiest access to ropes. Now, access to pesticides is even easier. Almost every household has pesticides, whether to kill cockroaches or to spray in the farms.”
Do not shy away from seeking help. If you, or anyone you know, would like to speak to a trained mental health professional, please contact:
TUTH Suicide Hotline: 9840021600
Transcultural Psychosocial Organization-Nepal Crisis Hotline: 1660 0102005
Mental Health Helpline Nepal: 1660 0133666
And as the import of pesticides increases, the hazardous chemicals will only be more accessible for self-harm. The Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock Development claims that Nepal’s pesticide consumption is 396g per hectare but research by the Netherlands-based Wageningen University shows it to be 2.9kg per hectare in vegetable patches.
“Pesticides that kill people are readily available in the market, they do not need prescriptions and anyone can buy it,” says Dilli Ram Sharma, former Director General of the Department of Agriculture. “To make matters worse, farmers always go for the most toxic ones that kill all pests at once.”
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A 2014 National Forensic Science Laboratory study that looked at the trends of clinical toxicology cases in Nepal from 2002-2012 showed that of the total poisoning cases due to insecticides, 71% were by ingesting the organophosphorus compounds Metacid (Methyl parathion) and Nuvan (Dichlorovos). Pyrethroid, carbamate and organochlorine were also used. Some of these pesticides are actually banned in Nepal, but available over the counter.
A Central Police Forensic Science Laboratory study conducted over the past three years shows organophosphorus compounds and aluminium phosphide as the most common active ingredients in poisoning cases. Data from seven tertiary hospitals across Nepal found Celphos (aluminium phosphide used to kill rodents) as the most common pesticide in those admitted for poisoning.
The Centre for Pesticide Suicide Prevention in collaboration with the University of Edinburgh and Nepal Public Health Foundation is collecting three years worth of hospital and forensic data to analyse self-poisoning. Prof Michael Eddleston of the University of Edinburgh is the principal investigator and was recently in Nepal.
“I don’t think it’s ever possible to use pesticide safely. You have to make pesticides non-toxic to humans, animals and the environment. We are trying to identify the problematic pesticides that are killing people here and provide that information to the concerned authorities so that they are banned and replaced with safer pesticides,” Eddleston told Nepali Times.
The Nepal Public Health Foundation is also organising a two-day national conference (9-10 January) focussed on healthy farming and reducing pesticide use.
Indeed Bangladesh, Korea and Sri Lanka have shown that removing highly hazardous pesticides from agricultural practice is key to preventing suicide deaths without affecting agricultural output. The good news is that some of the most toxic pesticides are being banned in Nepal.
In 2019, when the Centre for Pesticide Suicide Prevention pinpointed Dichlorvos and 3g tablets of aluminium phosphide as the most common causes of pesticide suicide in Nepal, the Plant Quarantine and Pesticide Management Centre placed a ban on both the pesticides, to be enforced after a grace period of two years for the chemicals already on the market.
Similarly, before Metacid (Methyl parathion) was prohibited in 2006, up to 68% of Nepalis killing themselves were using the chemical. After the ban, this figure came down to 8%.
“Prevention is better than cure and that is exactly what pesticide ban does. And this has a double benefit: it reduces suicide death while also bringing down the rampant use of pesticides in agriculture, leading to a decline in pesticide residue,” adds Sharma, who retired after banning the two pesticides.
Despite the ban, however, the smuggling of pesticides across the open border with India remains a challenge, and experts call for crossborder cooperation to fight it.
Says Rakesh Ghimire of Teaching Hospital: “Control of pesticides especially in agricultural areas is important, but as important is pesticide information centres and treatment when the poisoning happens.”
Sonia Awale is Executive Editor of Nepali Times where she also serves as the health, science and environment correspondent. She has extensively covered the climate crisis, disaster preparedness, development and public health -- looking at their political and economic interlinkages. Sonia is a graduate of public health, and has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Hong Kong.