13 November 2019

The University of Copenhagen prevents over-the-counter pesticide suicides


The man in the photo has willingly been drinking liquid pesticides in a desperate suicide attempt after realising that his harvest has failed. He is not alone: around 35 percent of all suicides in many Asian countries are the result of drinking pesticides as an easy way out.

Photo: Michael Eddleston

The University of Copenhagen has helped document the extent of the problem of pesticide suicides and, not least, the effect of banning the most toxic substances. That was the story Professor Flemming Konradsen presented to the audience at the annual commemoration at the University of Copenhagen on Friday 8 November. See the full presentation at the bottom of the article.

Known from agriculture in Denmark – used for suicide in Asia

In the 1960s, pesticides really gained ground in agriculture in large parts of the world with the aim of increasing food production. The well-documented consequences of pesticides on the working environment, the water quality and biodiversity have long since induced European countries and the West in general to ban the most dangerous pesticides.

In Asia, pesticides began to be used when the industrialisation of agriculture took off, as illustrated in the photo above. However, there are still many countries in Asia that have not banned the most harmful substances that farmers use in their fields today. Unfortunately, pesticides are also used for something completely different; suicide.

Extremely toxic pesticides are cheap and easy to get hold of. They are freely available in local shops, where it is difficult to enforce rules on who is allowed to buy pesticides, as the vast majority of the rural  population make their living from farming. Most suicides are impulsive and a reaction in a desperate moment, when the pesticides can just be fetched from the cupboard like any other household product.

Children become involuntary and innocent victims

The extremely dangerous substance is not only a danger for desperate souls, many children are also injured or even die because of careless storage of pesticides. In the photo below, two children are playing in the shade, and one metre from them sits a bottle of liquid pesticide. Just a teaspoon or a sip may be enough for the children to die. Regardless of whether it is a deliberate act or an accident, the consequence is often death, as treatment is poor and the hospital far away.

Photo: Manjula Weerasinghe

Research from the University documents the effect of banning the most dangerous pesticides

For 20 years, the University of Copenhagen has been a key member of an international network aimed at reducing the number of pesticide suicides.

In the mid-1990s, Sri Lanka had one of the world's highest suicide rates. But bans on importing and using the most dangerous pesticides in 1995 and 2001 resulted in a significant decline of the suicide rate. The University helps monitor 1.5 million people in one province and its 60 hospitals to find out which chemicals are harmful and kill the most. The documentation will be passed on to the authorities, who can use it to draft laws and guidelines for the use of pesticides.

The arrows in the graph indicate when Sri Lanka has imposed bans on particularly hazardous pesticides.

Precisely this research is important in order to avoid a potential similar situation in Africa, where agriculture is currently growing and the need for pesticides is rising. If African countries do not ban the most toxic pesticides, it may result in hundreds of thousands of deaths.

The example from Professor Flemming Konradsen’s speech at the annual commemoration at the University of Copenhagen shows how research from the University contributes to changing circumstances in the world and, in this case, specifically to saving lives.

See Professor Flemming Konradsen’s full speech at the annual commemoration 2019 (in Danish only):

See highlights from the annual commemoration in 3 minutes:


UCPH Communication