Unknown to many people the use of sniper, otapiapia and other pesticides meant for agricultural and industrial use in committing suicide, experts said had been on for some years.
Doctors at the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital, Ituku Ozalla, Enugu, South-East Nigeria reported three adolescents that drank sniper to commit suicide in Enugu in the 2018 March edition of the Journal of Community Medicine and Primary Health Care.
The events of poisoning were preceded by strained family relationship in two of the cases while failure in a promotional examination preceded the incident in one of them.
Snipers and otapiapia, like other pesticides, are organophosphate compounds and are toxic in nature. The toxic effects of these compounds, however, vary depending on age; route and duration of exposure; and inherent characteristics of the specified chemical.
Director, Public Affairs, National Agency for Food, Drugs Administration and Control (NAFDAC), Dr Abubakar Jimoh, stated that although the agency registers chemical substances such as sniper, an organophosphate insecticide, in Nigeria, its work does not extend to controlling its misappropriation.
Dr Jimoh declared that the agency has umbrella guidelines for all pesticides, which include details of what is inside, the dates of manufacture and expiry, company of manufacture, and precautions to take when using them.
According to him, “all those labeling requirements we ensure that they comply with before any such product can be registered. Snipers is registered for pesticide use, not for a suicide mission. We cannot mount up a public campaign on its wrong use and that nobody should have an interest in diverting it for inappropriate uses. It is going out of our mandate.”
Dr Jimoh, who noted that anything can be used to commit suicide, said the person that buys snipers and other chemical substances may not even be the person that will use it to commit suicide.
“The person that uses it to commit suicide may do so without the knowledge of the person that purchases it. You may not even know until the person had committed suicide,” he added.
Meanwhile, Nigeria has no strict regulations/guidelines on importation and sale of these hazardous products to the general public. Similarly, many African countries do not have well-established poison control and information centres.
Dr Abass Abdus-salam, a consultant Radiation and Clinical Oncologist at the University College Hospital (UCH), Ibadan, stated that there was the possibility of exposure to chemicals such as sniper and otapiapia causing cancer.
‘Sniper’ belonging to the dichlorvos or 2,2-dichlorovinyl dimethyl phosphate compound (DDVP) chemical family that is meant for agricultural and industrial use and never for indoor use.
The most popular source of organophosphate insecticide/pesticide in Nigeria is the locally made variety called ‘Otapiapia’. The main active ingredient in ‘otapiapia’ is dichlorvos or 2, 2-dichlorovinyl dimethyl phosphate (DDVP)
It is readily available for purchase on the streets and in open markets. ‘Sniper’, which is another common variety of DDVP has a more refined packaging and is available in stores nationwide, at a higher cost.
However, there are lots of insecticides that contain DDVP chemical, but sniper and otapiapia are the most misused and overused in many parts of Nigeria.
Also, people would rather use Sniper or otapiapia than other established and safe brands of insecticides because of their supposed effectiveness, the price and their ignorance of the health dangers, especially to children.
But Dr Abdulsalam said that there are some pieces of evidence that exposure to these chemical substances can cause cancer, adding “somebody in the USA just won several millions of dollar from companies that produce it.”
According to him, “But the other thing is one has to take some of this scientific evidence with a pinch of salt because these are multi-billion naira investment companies and they have the means to produce their own scientific evidence.
“So sometimes, it is difficult to say that this is what the science is saying; it is like the mobile phone. Studies have shown that rays from the mobile phone can cause some kind of cancer, but almost the concession among scientists is that it cannot cause cancer. But again one has to take that with a pinch of salt because these are sciences that are sometimes influenced by money or grants.”
The expert, however, said he would not advice the continuous usage of the chemical substances in homes.
According to him, “I had used some of those chemicals like weed killers in my compound in the past. I have stopped using them. But what everyone seems to have agreed on is that if people do not use it frequently, there may not be a problem.
“But when it is used actively on an industrial scale on a daily basis, then those people are exposed to danger from these chemicals. But there are no studies in humans that proved conclusively that they can cause cancer. There are also human studies with some pieces of evidence that it causes problems.”
Dr Mofeyisara Omobowale, an anthropologist at the Institute of Child Health, College of Medicine, University of Ibadan, said from a study carried out on malaria preventive measures used by parents of children under five years in Ibadan, there was an urgent need for awareness campaign on the harmful effects of otapiapa or sniper misuse.
The study found that many practice indoor application of undiluted chemical products to prevent mosquito bite and malaria.
Dr Omobowale, who noted that these chemicals were meant to be used only outdoor and in their diluted concentration, the effects of inhaling these chemicals is not magnanimous on the respiratory system of children when it is used for a long time.
She said different variants of sniper are used by parents for mosquito and insect control in the community, adding that its effect on the lungs of children are further worsened with many people also mixing these chemicals with carbide or kerosine before its use indoors.
“we are preventing malaria to the detriment of the health of children because over time, when children inhale these chemicals, it affects vital organs of the body such as the lungs, kidney, heart and the reproductive system. This may account for an increase in some non-communicable diseases among children and adolescents in Nigeria.”
Dr Omobowale, however, stressed the need to control access to these chemicals that cause fatal poisonings due to their availability, low price, inappropriate use and storage of pesticides; unsafe disposal or reuse of pesticide containers as well as lack of adequate regulations controlling their sale.
But an expert panel of toxicologists has called for a ban of these chemical substances because of its effect on the health of children and pregnant women.
The researchers in a study published in Plos Medicine said there is no safe level of exposure to any organophosphate pesticide.
According to the report, exposure to organophosphates (OPs) even at low levels of exposure increases the risk of reduced IQs, memory and attention deficits, and autism for prenatal children.
”We have compelling evidence from dozens of human studies that exposures of pregnant women to very low levels of organophosphate pesticides put children and foetuses at risk for developmental problems that may last a lifetime.
“By law, the EPA cannot ignore such clear findings: It’s time for a ban not just on chlorpyrifos, but all organophosphate pesticides,” they stated in Plos Medicine.
Organophosphates were developed in the 1930s and 40s for use in nerve gas agents – sarin was one of the most notorious – and later adapted for use as pesticides at lower doses.