France bans popular pesticide suspected of making dozens sick

French health authorities announced on Monday a permanent ban on a widely used pesticide, after alarms were raised when several dozen people fell ill in western France recently.

France bans popular pesticide suspected of making dozens sick
Photo: AFP

The ANSES health security agency said the decision to outlaw all products containing metam sodium came after a new safety review launched earlier this 

year — before at least three outbreaks of illness were reported in the Maine-et-Loire department beginning in September.

The outbreaks had already prompted the government to suspend the use of metam sodium, a ground disinfectant which is not supposed to come in contact with plants or farm workers.

The product must be used in high doses to be effective, and around 700 tonnes are used annually in France.

At least 70 people, many of them farm workers, complained of burning eyes and throats and respiratory difficulties near Angers, a farming basin which specialises in lamb's lettuce, also known as corn salad.

“These episodes confirm the soundness of our decision, but they did not precipitate it,” Francoise Weber, deputy director at ANSES, told the Ouest France newspaper on Monday.

One of the most widely used pesticides in the US and Europe, metam sodium is considered a “probable human carcinogen” by the US Environmental Protection Agency.

The compound, sold under brand names including Vapam and Sectagon, has been authorised in Europe until 2022, when a new safety review is scheduled.

“There was no other choice but to remove it from the market, whether or not alternatives exist,” Weber told the paper.

“We're aware of the difficulties this will present to lamb's lettuce growers, to farmers in general, but public health comes first,” she said.

Farmers had already fumed against the government's suspension last month in an area whose economy relies heavily on intensive agriculture.

The region near Nantes produces more than half the 35,000 tonnes of lamb's lettuce, a popular salad green, consumed each year in Europe.

“There will be much less lamb's lettuce, radishes and leeks” available next season, Philippe Retiere, head of the Nantes growers' federation, told AFP after the suspension was announced last month.

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France brings in free contraception for all women aged 18-25

Free birth control for all women under 25 will be available in France from Saturday, expanding a scheme targeting under-18s to ensure young women don't stop taking contraception because they cannot afford it.

France brings in free contraception for all women aged 18-25
A doctor holds an interuterine contraceptive device (IUD) before inserting it in a patient. Photo: Adek Berry/AFP

The scheme, which could benefit three million women, covers the pill, IUDs, contraceptive patches and other methods composed of steroid hormones. Contraception for minors was already free in France.

Several European countries, including Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and Norway, make contraception free for teens. Britain makes several forms of contraception free to all.

France announced the extension to women under 25 in September, saying surveys showed a decline in the use of contraception mainly for financial reasons.

The move is part of a series of measures taken by President Emmanuel Macron’s government to boost women’s rights and alleviate youth poverty. The free provision is supported by women’s groups including the association En Avant Tous.

“Between 18 and 25-years-old, women are very vulnerable because they lose a lot of rights compared to when they were minors and are very precarious economically,” spokeswoman Louise Delavier told AFP.

Leslie Fonquerne, an expert in gender issues, said there was more to be done.

“This measure in no way resolves the imbalance in the contraceptive burden between women and men,” the sociologist said.

In some developed countries, the free contraception won by women after decades of campaigning is coming under attack again from the religious right.

In the United States, former president Barack Obama’s signature health reform, known as Obamacare, gave most people with health insurance free access to birth control.

But his successor Donald Trump scrapped the measure, allowing employers to opt out of providing contraception coverage on religious grounds — a decision upheld by the Supreme Court in 2020.

Poland’s conservative government has also heavily restricted access to emergency contraception as part of its war on birth control.