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Friday, July 1, 2022

Sniper: What you need to know

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By Edrissa Baldeh

Social media is like a story. There are always twists and turns. Now it is part and parcel of our lives. Sometimes I wonder how our lives would be without social media. This week, the highly effective organophosphate insecticide (pesticide), Sniper inconveniently took over the discussion in Gambian social and traditional media space. I am sure it also dominated conversations in homes, markets, streets, places of work and other places. As the new Bantaba, social media is both a place of information and misinformation. However, despite its demerits, we owe so many positive changes in our society to it. Thanks to the recent declaration of the NEA to banned Sniper in The Gambia, its misuse in our country has come to light. However, I am still puzzled why the initial banning of the chemical by the same agency 3 years ago was not enforced. But “it’s Gambia”. Yes Africa. Sometimes laws are just a piece of paper. How effective is the plastic ban? You do not need to answer. Anyway, this piece is about the pesticide you read on the caption. Please come close dear reader.

Sniper belongs to the DDVP chemical family, (dichlorvos) 2, 2-dichlorovinyl dimethyl phosphate compound. It is traded by different other names such as Daksh, Dedevap, Vapona, Atgard, Nogos, Nuvan, Phosvit, and Task. There are lots of insecticides that contain DDVP chemical, however Sniper seems to be the most desirable and misused for various reasons including its effectivity, availability and affordability. Perhaps I should add “ignorance”. Perhaps not. Perhaps. Thanks to the popular Facebook page “Whatson-Gambia”, the abuse of Sniper in The Gambia was revealed. What struck me most was the innocent ignorance of the female smoke fish monger who admitted using the pesticide to preserve her fish and went on to strongly defend her decision. From her message, it was clear she is not alone in this “criminal” act. But I was not surprise to hear someone giving “expert opinion” on food in The Gambia. My colleagues may understand what I am saying. Many people in The Gambia believe that if you consume food and did not die instant, or observe an immediate health problem, it should be considered safe food. On the contrary many food (chemical) hazards have long-term consequences on human health. However, in a continent rife with high prevalence of food insecurity, sometimes food safety is a secondary priority for many consumers.

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Meanwhile, there have been lots of discussions and debates about dichlorvos or Sniper, as marketed in The Gambia. According to available literature, the use of the insecticide has been restricted in some countries including the United States. In fact, it is already banned in some countries for reasons similar to our case, misusage. For instance, in Nigeria, it was reportedly used as a food preservative especially thus prompting the authorities there to intervene. Thus, it is likely that the misuse of this chemical product is prevalent across the African continent.

Over the years, scientists have conducted numerous studies to ascertain the health effects of dichlorvos. As a universally accepted scientific research procedure, most of the experiments were conducted on mice. However, there have also been studies conducted on dogs, cats, rabbits, ruminants and even humans. Dichlorvos gets into the body via three routes, namely; mouth (by ingestion), air (by inhalation) and skin (by absorption). Results from various studies show that the effectiveness of the pesticide or its ability to kill or impact the health of consumer depends on numerous factors including the concentration, dose (amount) in relation to body weight ratio and duration or level of exposure to the poison. For example, high concentrations of the pesticide was able to kill laboratory animals when administered orally as well as exposure to air saturated with the poison. According to evidence, it can be as deadly when absorbed by skin as when ingested or inhaled. Consequently, there are deaths of humans dying by intentional intake of the poison (suicide). On the other hand, there is also a report of workers who died after “accidentally” spilling Sniper on their skins and failing to wash it immediately. Besides causing sudden death, Sniper is also reported to cause organophosphate-induced delayed neuropathy, low sperm count, loss of bladder control, muscle tremors, respiratory problems, autoimmune hepatitis, blurred vision, salivation, vomiting, diarrhea, eye and skin irritation, runny nose, loss of appetite, dizziness among others. In addition, there have been many debates about the carcinogenicity of Sniper. Whilst some researchers reported that mice exposed to the poison developed some forms of cancer, there is no evidence that it can induce cancer in human. Nonetheless, the International Agency for Research on Cancer and two American authoritative institutes, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Environmental Protection Agency has all concluded that dichlorvos may possibly be a human carcinogen (a substance that can cause cancer). 

Although Sniper is hazardous, the good side is it has a short life due to its rapid breakdown or metabolism. When it is exposed to new environments, it is broken down into two different forms of compounds (chemicals). The silver lining is, these new compounds are less harmful than the original. Besides, it is also extremely volatile. Thus, when it is applied in a ventilated surface including water, most of it evaporates after a couple of hours. Moreover, when ingested it is transported to all organs of the body through the bloodstream and broken down (metabolized). These metabolites later exit the body through either air (breathing), urine or faeces or milk in case of lactating animals. However, it can also be accumulated into the liver and kidneys. Thus, a sustain exposure to the pesticide can be injurious to health. On the bright side, pesticide residue including Sniper can be drastically reduced in food by thorough washing and cooking. Therefore, due to poor handling practices, our people that used the pesticide to preserve food may somewhat be at greater risks of “self-poisoning” than the consumers. However, this depends on the conditions of both the chemical substance and food mentioned above.

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Finally, I hope this piece will help to raise awareness about food safety issues in our country. In the food industry, fumigation is regulated with written principles and procedures. Only approved chemicals are allowed to be used as food preservatives and the sanitation and disinfection of food establishments. Sniper is primarily made for agricultural purposes. Poisons should never come close to food, food preparation areas or contact surfaces. Do not inhale it as well. It can kill you and your family. A sustained accumulation of hazardous substances in the body will be fatal. Protect yourself. Let us also help the authorities to enforce its ban. Please report anyone you see using it as a food preservative to the relevant authorities. 

Edrissa Baldeh has a Bsc in Biology from the UTG. He holds a Msc in Food Science from Obihiro University of Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine and recently completes his PhD at the same University.  

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