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.
“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.”