x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Strong laws against toxic carelessness

Discovery in Sharjah of a sophisticated business in banned and deadly pesticides demonstrates that tough enforcement is needed.

Police in Sharjah, tracing the origin of the 26 tablets of a banned pesticide that killed 2-year-old Habiba Hisham on September 2, made a remarkable discovery. As The National reported yesterday, they found a full-scale office and factory for mixing and selling chemicals, some of them deadly.

Two men said to have applied the pesticide in a flat while its residents were away, have been turned over to public prosecutors along with five others police say were involved in the illicit enterprise.

To be sure, nobody intended for little Habiba to die, or for her brother Abdul Rahman, 6, to come so close to death. The children were just terribly unlucky to live in a flat near the one being fumigated.

But the existence of this clandestine operation, along with the alarming frequency of fatal and near-fatal pesticide poisonings across the country, point to a serious problem that demands official and public attention.

To be sure, the pesticide in question - aluminium phosphide - and hundreds of other deadly compounds, are already banned nationwide, except for controlled use by licensed tradesmen. But a reporter for The National bought some this month for just Dh75 and without much trouble. It is also worth noting that police say the men in this case had taken prudent precautions, in their flat, to protect their own health. If only they had paid as much attention to the safety of others.

In letters to the editor and comments on our website, readers of The National have expressed shock that fines for using aluminium phosphide begin at a mere Dh500. That covers licensed companies; it remains to be seen what penalties can be applied in this case. (However that works out, we should remember that the rule of law leaves no room for retroactive application of new legislation to the current case.)

As we have noted frequently, the UAE needs a stronger culture of personal safety - in traffic, in construction and in child protection, to name a few main areas. But this issue is different: the carelessness or callousness that killed Habiba was not her doing, nor her family's.

To reduce the chance of any more such nightmares, strong and well-publicised criminal penalties, plus thorough and very public enforcement, are needed to spread the word that nobody else, of any age, should die this way.