Employees from BioCycle do pest control work the responsible way in Hong Kong. The company would like to see a licensing system introduced to regulate the industry. Photos provided by Red Door News, Hong Kong
It's summertime - and the Hong Kong air is fuggy from clouds of pesticide sprayed to kill insects and weeds. But the easy availability of pesticides banned in other countries and the lack of a licensing system for pest control companies is raising concern over the safety of the industry, reports Simon Parry.
It was on a fine and breezy summer's day last year when Esther Houghton's 6-year-old son Sebastian had a painful firsthand experience of the potential side effects of the pesticides sprayed liberally around Hong Kong to control insects and weeds.
Sebastian's bed sheets had been hung out to dry in the garden of his home in Lantau when a neighbor treated a piece of open land with a powerful, unidentified chemical that in the space of minutes transformed a jumble of undergrowth to a wasteland of brittle brown deadness.
As he worked, clouds of pesticide blew onto the family's washing line and, unknown to Sebastian's mother, soaked into the bed sheets before she returned from a day out with her two sons, and made Sebastian's bed up with the freshly laundered sheets.
"Sebastian woke up the next morning with a terrible rash all over him. He was absolutely covered in welts," said Esther, a teacher who has lived all her life in Hong Kong. "He's never had any kind of skin reaction like that before and he was very itchy and uncomfortable. It was really quite frightening."
Fortunately, Sebastian recovered and the rash subsided by the evening of that same day. But the spraying of village and farmland around their home in Mui Wo continues - as do Esther's fears of the possible long-term effects of the chemicals on her children.
"Every time I see this neighbor spraying pesticide I get everyone inside the house and shut the windows," she said. "But my boys play outdoors when they're home from school and it worries me. Apparently this stuff remains active for 30 days.
Sebastian, son of Esther Houghton, who developed a rash all over his body after coming into contact with pesticide sprayed close to his family's house in Lantau.
"We've got outdoor furniture and the pesticide blows over onto it. We park out bikes outside so there could be chemical left on the handlebars. It's really the children I worry about. I think there should be regulations on the use of these powerful pesticides.
"I've heard some of the pesticides you can buy here have been banned overseas because of cancer risks. I spoke to the neighbour and I told him there is a chance that what you're using is really dangerous and it can't be used in some countries overseas."
It is not just in rural areas like Lantau where the use of pesticides is triggering concerns. Nuria Chiu, who has lived on Hong Kong Island for 18 years, says the amount of spraying going on in urban areas was "absolutely out of control".
Chiu, who has a 7-year-old daughter, said: "They spray around the properties without warning and if it is a windy day and by any chance a widow is open you get a cloud of insecticide inside your home.
"Most of the time, the contractors don't know what they are spraying. Two days ago I saw some contractors spraying a communal garden. I saw the van and I went down and spoke to them and they didn't have a clue what they were spraying.
"The contractor showed me a bottle and it was Permethrin. It's widely used in Hong Kong but it has been phased out in Europe. Sometimes these contractors spray two things at the same time which can be a really dangerous cocktail.
"Recently, I was out at a restaurant and we asked to sit outside on the balcony but they said it was closed because they were doing pest control. They do it every two weeks and they spray everywhere including the kitchen, all the eating areas and the balcony and the balcony.
"People don't question it because they think if it's being sprayed everywhere it can't be bad, but in fact it is."
Chiu argued: "I understand it is a really difficult issue because Hong Kong has to deal with dengue fever and malaria and Japanese encephalitis and they are really serious diseases, but to be honest I'm not sure how effective these chemicals are.
"I think the government should look at what is being sprayed. There are so many pest control vans around the city all summer now. The government should look at other countries and see what the alternatives are and whether there are safer chemicals they can use.
"Sometimes these contractors don't even tell parents when they spray around a school. Paretns should be informed so they have a choice to keep their children out of school when they are spraying."
She added: "I have worried about this more since my daughter was born. It is the long-term effect on these chemicals on children that are worrying. They are much more vulnerable and these chemicals have triple the effect on a child."
One experienced Hong Kong horticulturalist, who asked not to be named, said pesticides such as Diazinon and Paraquat which are restricted overseas were openly available in Hong Kong and could be bought over the counter in shops.
"Anyone with no knowledge and no education and absolutely no idea what they are doing can spray it and use it," he said. "I've seen some crazy situations over the years. I've seen a father holding a baby in one hand and a bottle of pesticide in another.
"There are no warnings with them and some of these chemicals are really, really dangerous stuff. It's being sprayed around kids and no one has any idea what they are using. It is totally out of control. It's a major hazard to the public."
Legislator Albert Chan said he had raised the issue of pesticides with the government last year but did not believe the problem was taken seriously. "The biggest problem is that there is no monitoring or control on domestic usage.
"It seems these chemicals are widely used in many areas especially in the rural villages in the places near schools. It can be a health hazard to residents, especially younger children, but it seems the government has taken no proper measures to ensure that those chemicals are properly used and properly monitored.
"I think this problem is out of control. The government has been warned again and again but it doesn't seem to take any notice of the problem."
Without legislation or regulations to control pesticides, Chan argued, it would be difficult for habits to change. "In rural village, old people have been using these chemicals for decades. They are widely used especially at this time of year when everything grows.
"They spray in a wide area near the houses or walkways and if you go to the rural villages you can see many areas where the plants die suddenly and sometimes you can smell the chemical that is being dispersed.
"I don't think the government sees this as a serious matter and they don't seem to have any intention to take any action against this problem. But we need to see legal and administrative controls over the use of these pesticides. If you go to Canada, you can't buy these weed killers. They are totally banned.
"It is deadly stuff. Sometimes you can smell it for a week after it has been sprayed. There are medical studies indicating those chemicals will affect your lungs or your breathing mechanism. For pregnant women it can affect the foetus. There is strong medical evidence of adverse effects on health.
"People complain again and again and the government seems to be ignorant of the problem The traditional bureaucratic thinking seems to be that doing nothing is the best way to handle the problem. It is pure bureaucratic laziness."
Stuart Morton, technical manager and entomologist with respected pest control company BioCycle, which has carried out pesticide work in Hong Kong under strictly controlled conditions for 20 years, said there were two common problems with pesticide use in the city.
The first problem was that so-called Part Two pesticides, which should be available only to people within the industry, were sometimes sold through small shops to individuals. The other problem was that pest control companies sometimes sprayed without warning residents.
"It seems anyone can sell pesticides in Hong Kong," he said. "You just apply for the licence and pay the money. They come and do a check on storage but if they are selling Part Two pesticides to people, they should keep a record I think. They should have a record of who they are selling them to and supplying them to."
However, the biggest single issue confronting the trade, according to Morton, was that there was no formal government-administered licensing system for pest control companies as there is in many other countries.
"They (the government) have been dancing around this for more than 15 years and they are still looking at it," said Morton. "You go to the Philippines and pest control operators have to be licensed. In Hong Kong, you just money, and set up a pest control company and there is no monitoring whatsoever the government isn't controlling or licensing anything.
"I think that's appalling. How can you expect the public to have confidence in the industry? It doesn't give the industry any credibility whatsoever. Anyone can just go and pick up the equipment and go and spray."
Morton said there were probably 300 to 400 pest control companies in Hong Kong, many of which started out as one-man operations offering cleaning and pest control services.
Two associations - the Hong Kong Pest Control Association and the Hong Kong Pest Control Personnel Association - offered a degree of voluntary in-house training but Morton said: "The industry is leading and the government isn't.
"You don't have to invent anything. You just need to take existing guidelines from Australia and the US and look at what their licensing is and bring it in here. Everyone in the industry would welcome that because it cuts out the cowboys and gives credibility to the responsible companies."
Despite constant requests, there was still no sign of a licensing system being introduced, Morton said. "We see them (government officials) from time to time and ask them how it's going. We go in and talk to them and have meetings, and they say they are still in consultation.
"This has been going on for years now. We are in 2011. Come on. In the Philippines and on the Chinese mainland, you have to have licensed operators - so why not here in Hong Kong?"
Asked why there was no licensing of pest control companies in Hong Kong, a spokeswoman for the Agriculture Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) said it would impose "an unnecessary burden to the trade".
She said the AFCD had encouraged the trade to improve professional standards by joining training courses and developing codes of practice and said there had been a "significant increase" in pest control workers receiving training.
"The government has considered thoroughly and carefully the need to introduce a licensing scheme to regulate pest control companies and applicators," the spokeswoman said in a statement.
"There have been noticeable improvements in terms of training and education provided to the pesticide applicators. There is also a well-established system to ensure safe use of pesticides in Hong Kong. Furthermore, the codes of practice also help the trade to follow good practice.
"According to the constant monitoring data by the Department of Health, there has only been small number of minor incidents relating to the use of pesticides in recent years We consider that the immediate introduction of a statutory licensing scheme would impose unnecessary burden to the trade."
Thankfully, 6-year-old Sebastian's nasty experience last summer turned out to be no more than one of those minor incidents. But both outside and within the industry, concerns about the pesticides being used in Hong Kong and the people spraying them are turning into a rash that won't go away.
(HK Edition 06/08/2011 page4)