College of Medicine & Veterinary Medicine

Experts urge action on poisons in Asia

Policy makers in Asia should withdraw the most harmful pesticides from small-scale farms to help reduce rates of self-poisoning, research suggests.

The plea comes as a study shows that keeping pesticides under lock and key does not prevent cases of self-harm.

patients receiving treatment
A pesticide poisoned patient being cared for in Anuradhapura hospital.


The finding suggests a new approach to tackling pesticide self-poisoning, which is one of the leading means of suicide globally. The pesticide industry, together with some health agencies, currently advocate safer storage methods as a key way to address the problem.

Common Problem 

The majority of poisonings occur in Asia, where use of dangerous pesticides is common in rural areas. Research focused on Sri Lanka where pesticide poisoning was the fifth leading cause of death in the country in 2012. Researchers at Edinburgh worked with Sri Lankan and international colleagues on the study.

Pesticide self-poisoning kills over 150,000 people every year, often in poor rural Asian communities. Each suicide results in terrible family and community stresses. Prevention is really important.

Professor Michael EddlestonUniversity of Edinburgh/British Heart Foundation Centre for Cardiovascular Science.

Pesticide storage 

The study - the largest of its kind - focused on the Anuradhapura District in Sri Lanka’s North Central province. More than 200,000 people took part. Scientists recorded the incidence of self-poisoning in households where they had provided storage lockers and compared self-poisoning rates with homes without safe storage. They found that locking away pesticides had no significant effect.

We found no evidence to say that improved storage of pesticides reduces the incidence of pesticide self-poisoning. Combined with evidence from other countries, the trial suggests that policy makers should focus their attention on withdrawal of the most harmful pesticides from agricultural practice.

Professor Michael Eddleston
Professor Michael Eddleston

Pilot studies

The findings contrast with smaller pilot studies that suggested pesticide storage may be an effective preventative measure. Researchers concluded that other approaches, such as replacing existing pesticides with less toxic alternatives, are more likely to be effective.

The study, funded by the Wellcome Trust, is published in The Lancet.

It was supported by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine, Chief Scientist Office of Scotland, the University of Copenhagen, and the National Health and Medical Research Council Australia

A bit more from Professor Eddleston:

What’s next following this report?

"To work with pesticide regulators across lower and middle income countries to help them regulate pesticides and stop the use of highly hazardous pesticides. This will reduce suicide rates, as people survive the act, allowing them to receive the familial and community support they need for their lives. In addition, removal of these pesticides will reduce environmental contamination as well as accidental poisonings. To do this work, we have set up the Centre for Pesticide Suicide Prevention here in Edinburgh."

What are your hopes for your work?

"To save tens or thousands of lives across the world."

Related Links

Lancet article

Centre for Cardiovascular Science